A tale of two mansions
The New Shoreham Zoning Board of Review met on Wednesday, May 26 to conduct hearings on several applications. The board only made it through two hearings, and at the conclusion of the second hearing, amid failing internet connections and rumbling tummies, the board moved to continue the other hearings until its June meeting.
The first hearing was for Blakely and John Stinebaugh’s property, Plat 4, Lot 7-1, located on Corn Neck Road, commonly referred to as the Captain Willis House. The application is for a Special Use Permit under sections 306(E), 401, and 406 to demolish an existing single-family dwelling and construct a single-family dwelling and accessory structure. The Stinebaughs have received favorable advisories from the Conservation Commission and the Planning Board. In their advisory, the Planning Board indicated that the square footage calculations were not prepared by a Rhode Island registered architect as required by New Shoreham, and mentioned that the application did not confirm if the exterior lighting was dark-sky compliant and met the town’s exterior lighting ordinance, Sec 512.
The proposed house will have a footprint of 1,864 square feet and a living area square footage of 3,710 square feet, which is over the threshold limits outlined in Section 306(E) and Section 406 of the Zoning Ordinance and requires a Special Use Permit. The proposed dwelling will be located fifty feet off Corn Neck Road. As the new structure is so close to the road, the Planning Board’s advisory opinion expressed their desire that the “public view of the new residential development from Corn Neck Road is softened” and recommended the “Zoning Board establish a specific height at which the privet hedge must be maintained.” The current placement of the Captain Willis house is thirty feet from Corn Neck Road, with no requisite privet height.
While the historical nature of the Captain Willis house lives on in the community’s psyche, new owner Blakely Stinebaugh informed the Zoning Board during her testimony that the front facade is the only part of the house that is still in its original form. Stinebaugh reported “there is no original flooring, or molding, or anything.”
The Zoning Board had no questions for Stinebaugh, and very few questions for any of the other witnesses on her case. Member Judith Cyronak asked architect Chris Delaney if the applicants had “given any thought to trying to meet the thresholds?” Delaney explained that they had revised the design down as much as they could, trying to make it “usable for a large family.”
Project manager Ken Cole described the property as a “1.89 acre lot with 350 feet of frontage on Corn Neck Road.” He confirmed that there are wetlands on the neighbor’s property, causing him to “put on buffers for DEM.”
The Stinebaugh hearing wrapped up with no public comment, and the Zoning Board took the application under advisement and moved on to the next application for an oversized house.
The second hearing of the day was for the property belonging to Pamela and Nick Gelsomini, Plat 4, Lot 63. There is an existing house on this property too, although it does not have a recognized name in the parlance of the island. The structure is located in the center of the 6.7 acre lot, and wetlands specialist Joseph McCue testified that the new construction would have to be in roughly the same spot. Coastal Management Resources Council guidelines call for 200 feet of buffer zone between wetlands and buildings, and according to McCue, anywhere that one builds on the property “will be within the buffer zone.” He said CMRC said to “try and concentrate development within a 150-foot setback” of the wetlands. McCue went on to state that it is “common for developments to request up to 50 percent reduction of the buffer.” The applicant is requesting a 25 percent reduction, from 200 feet to 150 feet. McCue went on to testify that after examining 51 other properties on the pond, he determined that the Gelsomini property will have the “sixth highest buffer zone” on the Great Salt Pond at 150 feet. He said only two properties in the study had buffers of 200 feet, and twenty properties had buffers of less than ten feet.
Chair Kate Butcher asked how many of those properties studied were built before regulations were put into place, calling McCue’s comparison “apples and oranges.”
Alternate Member Steven Filippi brought up the concerns raised by the Planning Board in their unfavorable advisory that emergency vehicles would not be able to access the site, particularly after heavy rains.
Owner Pam Gelsomini disagreed and said the fire department had used the property “all summer” for training. She further stated that they had received approval from CRMC to upgrade the driveway to address the potential flooding problem.
Project Manager Ken Cole returned to the proceedings, this time representing the Gelsomini project, and confirmed that the road was in “dire need of repair,” and CRMC had advised a base of crushed stone to be put down as part of the upgrade.
Butcher went on to question Cole about the proposed rain gardens, saying that the Planning Board “had issue with the design,” and “they said the rain gardens are not adequate.”
Cole said he “wholeheartedly disagrees with the Planning Board,” saying that the square footage of the rain gardens is adequate, and that rain gardens are “the ugliest, but most effective (way of) reducing pollutants from rainfall.”
Filippi asked what pollutants Cole was referring to, and Cole explained that in wetland areas DEM requires some sort of mitigation of pollutants that may be picked up from impervious surfaces such as the roof or driveway.
Filippi also had questions related to the outdoor lighting, asking Landscape Architect Ray Miello if he had even read section 512 of the town’s Outdoor Lighting Ordinance. Miello replied that he had read the ordinance and understood the requirements for dark sky compliance and his design “complies with the ordinance.”
Butcher finally addressed the elephant in the room: the house design is too big. The building footprint is 4,143 square feet, which is over twice as much as the 2,000 square foot threshold to trigger a Special Use Permit, yet still less than the general prohibition outlined in Section 111 of the Zoning Ordinance of 5,000 square feet for a building footprint.
The proposed living area is 4,808 square feet, which is over the 3,300 square foot threshold to trigger a special use permit under Section 406, and there currently is no living area size prohibition under Section 111.
The proposed building volume is 69,915 cubic feet, which is over the 45,000 cubic feet threshold to trigger a Special Use Permit under Section 406, but under the general prohibition under Section 111 of 80,000 cubic feet.
Notice of a public hearing to impose a 4,500 square foot limit on living space under Section 111 was posted, as was notice of a public hearing to reduce the total building volume of residential structures to 65,000 cubic feet. Both of these Zoning provisions, if adopted, would make houses the size of the Gelsomini proposal prohibited.
Butcher mentioned again that the proposed home would be significantly larger than the houses on abutting properties, and she pointed out that the ordinances talk a lot about being compatible with adjacent buildings.
Real estate broker and appraiser Peter Scotti disagreed, saying that the building “is appropriate to the lot.” He went on to describe the 6.7 acre lot as “a lot of land with a house set far back from the water,” and “compatible with the neighbors’ properties.” He also said he was “baffled” by the Planning Board’s recommendations.
Member and Town Councilor Keith Stover spoke up to say “there’s a reason that we require advisory decisions from Planning and Conservation.” He also pointed out that the votes were not close by either board. He said, “just because things were built there in the past doesn’t mean we have to repeat mistakes.” He also acknowledged that the house was “quite large.”
The Zoning Board closed the hearing, and took the application under advisement. There may be new, reduced sizing guidelines when they reconvene.
For reference, the median size of new homes built in 2019 was 2,301 square feet, per the US Census Bureau.