Two boards, two definitions of developable land

Thu, 09/19/2019 - 6:45pm
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Because the Town Council and the Planning Board have two conflicting opinions on what constitutes developable land on Block Island, a public hearing on the matter has been scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 5 p.m. at Town Hall.

Due to a vote by the Town Council last January, conservation easements are now included in the town’s definition of developable land in the zoning ordinance, which, according to some, will open up Block Island’s open spaces and protected lands to development. The Planning Board believes that conservation easements should be excluded from the definition. The Planning Board amended the subdivision regulations in March of 2018 to exclude conservation easements from the definition.

As a result, property owners may be caught between a rock and a hard place, since the zoning ordinance says one thing and the subdivision regulations now say another.

The issue began last year when the Planning Board directed the Town Council to amend language in the zoning ordinance to exclude conservation easements from the definition. “There was a consensus of the Planning Board that land held in existing conservation and open space easements should not be considered developable land for the purposes of calculating development density,” Alison Ring, the town’s GIS Specialist/Town Planner, told The Times. “In addition to being, by definition, not developable, this policy could result in unintended density bonuses if conserved land is counted towards the minimum lot size.”

The Town Council, however, ended up voting against the Planning Board’s wishes and adopted the definition in the zoning ordinance that includes conservation easements in the definition of developable land.

“The Town Council voted (on Jan. 16, 2019) to return to language in the prior definition that includes conservation land in the developable land area calculation,” said Ring, which brings the town into alignment with state law.

“The State amended Section (45-23-44) of Rhode Island General Law in 2016 requiring that municipalities no longer exclude wetlands buffer areas from the developable land area calculation,” she said. “The Town of New Shoreham was therefore required to amend the definition of developable land area to be compliant with state law.”

Ring noted that, “The Planning Board does not as a policy agree that conserved lands should be included in the developable land calculation. However, the board has been advised (by Land Use Attorney Bill Landry during the summer) that the Zoning Ordinance and Subdivision Regulations should be consistent in this regard and therefore will be considering the amendment (at the upcoming hearing) to make the definition within the Subdivision Regulations consistent with what the Town Council decided in January.” 

It was at a Jan. 16 meeting when the Town Council voted 3 to 1 in support of including conservation easements in the definition of the zoning ordinance. Councilor Chris Willi made the motion that was seconded by Second Warden André Boudreau. Councilor Martha Ball recused, and Councilor Sven Risom dissented.

At the Planning Board’s meeting on Sept. 11, Chair Margie Comings referred to that vote and said it was “against the Planning Board’s advice.”

Resident David Lewis said he attended the Town Council meetings when discussions about the definition were being heard. “The Town Council was very happy to ignore the deviation between zoning and the Planning Board’s definitions, so long as they could get the zoning aligned with the state,” he said at the Planning Board meeting on Sept. 11, noting that former Land Use Attorney Don Packer’s recommendation reinforced the council’s action. He said Packer didn’t believe the zoning ordinance and the subdivision regulations needed to mirror each other.

“There was a hint of acknowledgment that the Town Council didn’t see the requirement as prohibiting individual party agreements, to extinguish rights, or to exclude (conservation easements) from developable square footage,” said Lewis, adding that: “I think there would have been a different tenor in the room had the Town Council been more aware of it.”

The Planning Board intends to include conservation easements to fall in line with the council’s decision, said Ring.

“The Planning Board is considering an amendment to make the subdivision regulations consistent with the Town Council’s recent decision,” she said.

Technical Review Committee formed

The Planning Board voted unanimously (6-0) to appoint five people to a newly created Technical Review Committee, which will serve as the board’s subcommittee. Member Tony Pappas made the motion that was seconded by Dennis Heinz.

Those people, as announced, are: Land Use Administrator Jenn Brady, Town Manager Ed Roberge, Facilities Manager Sam Bird, Planning Board member Christine Grele, and Highways Superintendent Mike Shea.

Comings said the committee will “conduct technical reviews of applications for subdivisions and land development projects subject to Planning Board jurisdiction and to consider and recommended advisories to the Zoning Board on variance and special use permit applications referred to the Planning Board under provisions of the zoning ordinance. The subcommittee is advisory and reviews are not binding on the Planning Board.” 

“We did have a Technical Review Committee a number of years ago. We found it very useful at the time and we thought it would be a good move to resurrect it. In my opinion it is very helpful to have a second set of eyes to look at a project,” said Comings.

Coast Guard Station update

The $100,000 dock replacement project is slated for a June 30, 2020 completion date. Information can be found in Roberge’s capital improvement report, which can be found at new-shoreham.com.