Town Council faces housing dilemma

Fri, 09/30/2022 - 3:45pm

The New Shoreham Town Council reviewed but took no action on a lease agreement with former town employee Marc Tillson for the manager’s apartment at the Coast Guard Station. Tillson, who retired a couple of years ago as building official, as well as zoning official, among other positions, has occupied the apartment for decades, but the town needs the apartment to house current employees.
When Tillson’s five-year lease was set to expire on December 31, 2021, the Town Council agreed to a one-year extension until Dec. 31, 2022. At the time they had already found a Harbors Department employee to take over the apartment and its companion role of Coast Guard Station manager.
In April, Tillson wrote to the council requesting an additional lease extension until August, 2024.
At the council’s meeting on September 21, Town Manager Maryanne Crawford said that she was willing to extend Tillson’s lease until May 1, 2023, but that that was not acceptable to Tillson, although the prospective tenant was okay with it.
In Tillson’s letter from last April, he wrote that he had “entered into an arrangement with a property owner on the island to construct a new zoning section 513 apartment on their lot where I will reside. The permitting and construction will take a minimum of 20 months to complete …”
At the meeting, Tillson said that he hoped construction of the 513 apartment could begin early this winter, “weather permitting.” Tillson added that he had been discussing the subject of 513 apartments with property owners, builders, and other potential partners, and that there was a group of people that wanted to form a not-for-profit corporation on the island specifically to develop 513 housing.
As far as the one he was building, he said he “hoped this will be a blueprint” for future 513s on Block Island.
A 513 apartment allows homeowners to put a second, accessory dwelling unit on their property for the specific use by year-round residents. Commercial zones also allow 513s to be used for seasonal workforce housing.
It was a compelling argument for the council, especially with the current focus on increasing “attainable” and affordable housing for year-round residents. The Planning Board has worked for months tweaking the 513 Zoning Ordinances to encourage property owners to add more, and the Town Council set a date of October 19 for a public hearing on the proposed changes.
Councilor Keith Stover, acknowledging the town’s “housing crisis” and his reluctance to throw someone out of their housing, asked if they might be able to “find some alternative where the town is not in the position of putting someone out of their housing.”
Councilor Mark Emmanuelle asked how much of a hardship it would be to the Harbors Department employee. “Is there housing available for that person so that Mark could stay there and go through with this great idea that we hope will become contagious?”
“So, I want to add some things to this,” said Second Warden Sven Risom, who was chairing the meeting. He said that Harbormaster Kate McConville had written a letter recently about “commitments to the future of the Harbors Department and where the Harbors Department is going. And it’s very difficult to plan...without housing [for employees] ...As Sam Bird often said, ‘every single decision in this building comes back to housing.’”
Risom too hoped that the town could assist Tillson in finding alternative housing, but “the Harbors Department should start to occupy that apartment in May. That’s my opinion.”
Actually acting on the lease was not on the agenda, so no action was taken, although Town Solicitor Nick Solitro advised making a decision soon so that notice of termination or modification of the lease agreement could be made within the 60-day time frame as required by law.
In other news, during Town Finance Director Amy Land’s report, Councilor Martha Ball asked: “Where are we with the North Light?”
Crawford’s Administrative Assistant Shirlyne Gobern, said: “The specs haven’t been put out for the repairs yet,” but the North Light Commission would be meeting soon to work on that.
Town Facilities Manager Tom Risom said that one of the problems with the North Light was that the generator died due to damage by rodents but that the building had run on solar for the past four or five months and that the security cameras were up and working. “There’s a lot going on that’s very quiet [at the lighthouse] ‘cause that’s the kind of guy Robbie is,” referring to Robbie Gilpin, who oversees care and maintenance of the lighthouse.
“Thank you, said Ball. “It’s good to know that.”
The Council got an update on the search for a new, permanent police chief. Crawford said that there were 11 applicants, and a search committee had been formed. It includes Molly O’Neill, Kim Gaffett, Neil Lang, Ken Lacoste and Peter Chabot of the Rhode Island State Police, who served as interim chief of police this summer.
The Council also renewed contracts for long-time town Engineer Jim Geremia and appointed Clair Comings to the Planning Board. There are still openings of the Deer Task Force, Motor Vehicles for Hire, the Police Advisory Commission, and the School Building Committee. Those who are interested in serving should send a letter of interest to the Town Council.