Planning Board considers dormitory life

Thu, 09/16/2021 - 2:45pm
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The New Shoreham Planning Board is looking at ways to accommodate a perennial need on the island: seasonal employee housing. One problem that the Planning Board is working on is the lack of clearly defined regulations for seasonal employee housing.
Town Planner Allison Ring explained that since there was no definition of seasonal employee housing in the zoning regulations, the town has been allowing applicants to use the definition of “inn.” An inn is defined as “a building or building complex containing three to ten rooms or suites for rent. Each unit must have access from an inside lobby and be without individual cooking facilities.”

While this arrangement of calling employee housing an inn has allowed businesses to build and remodel existing housing units, Ring told the board, there was a “need to allow seasonal housing as a permitted use.”

Two recent applications before the Planning Board involved employee housing at the Block Island Beach Club and the Overlook building which is used by Ballard’s for employee housing. Both applications referred to the housing units as an “inn.”
Chair Margie Comings said that for its part, the board had included language in its decisions on recent projects stipulating that the “inn” is for employee housing.
The 2016 Town Comprehensive Plan put it plainly: “Some housing units on Block Island, particularly seasonal housing and seasonal workforce housing, suffer from deteriorating conditions and residents in some cases live in substandard housing conditions.”

Ring spoke to the board on the topic at its September 9 meeting: “The town finds that there is an inadequate supply of temporary housing for the seasonal workforce on Block Island. As a result, some seasonal workers live in substandard housing conditions. Therefore, it is the intent of the town to encourage the development of housing for the seasonal workforce that is safe and sanitary by establishing regulations to permit this form of affordable housing,” Ring’s memo to the board stated.

Some of the existing employee housing developments have disparaging nicknames like “Guam,” “Saigon,” and “the Ghetto.”
Member Socha Cohen said she had been working with many of the international seasonal employees, and had seen their housing situations. “What you and I would call substandard housing is often legal,” she told the group.

Minimum Housing Inspector Wayne Pinkham spoke to The Times about seasonal employee housing, and provided some perspective. Pinkham inspects employee housing annually as part of the Rooming House License application. He said the regulations require 80 square feet for the first person, and 60 square feet for each additional person. There is no cap on number of people per room, the only limit being the square footage. A bathroom is required for every six people.
As far as the condition of the housing, Pinkham said his inspection focuses on safety, specifically fire safety, as he inspects smoke detectors, fire exits, and fire extinguishers. He also inspects the cleanliness and general condition of the rooms. “It’s an ongoing battle for some of the employers,” Pinkham said, mentioning that the housing is a lot like “dorm rooms.”
Pinkham described the residents as “usually young and unsupervised. Some of the rooms get beat up pretty good over the summer.” He said the rooms are allowed a coffee pot and a microwave, although the residents routinely try to sneak in rice cookers, insta-pots, and various other cooking equipment.
At the September 9 meeting, the board brainstormed ideas, with member Gail Ballard Hall suggesting that the regulations limit employee housing of this type to the commercial zones, as “Residential A zone is supposed to be the quietest part of the island, and if you add a dormitory into the RA zone it could be very disappointing for the residents.”

Comings mentioned that it might be necessary require something like a “dorm counselor, or property manager.” Comings also said it was important to make sure future designs did not have a “motel” feel. “We don’t want it to become slum housing within five to ten years.” She pointed out that the regulations would have to be clear that the housing could not fluctuate between uses, “being seasonal housing one year, and an Airbnb or annex to the hotel” the next year.
Member Mary Anderson said the group needed to gather data, to “get the whole picture, and best understand who is here and where they’re staying.” Anderson, along with Hall and Cohen, advocated for communicating with all the business owners to see what their needs and desires are.
“If you own a building in Old Harbor Commercial, and were given the opportunity for greater density for employee housing, would you capitalize on that?”
Anderson reminded the group that even though much much of the discussion on Block Island is driven by the business community, “we are more than that,” and need to consider “sustainability.”