The Block Island Times

Changes approved to affordable housing regs

By Stephanie Turaj | Feb 24, 2013
Photo by: Stephanie Turaj The Town Council discusses the changes to the zoning ordinances.

The number of affordable housing units allowed on certain lots may increase under new changes approved by the Town Council at its Feb. 20 meeting.

According to the ordinance changes (Article 2, Section 202; Article 4, sections 203-205; and Article 7 Section 712), private property owners will have more options to develop affordable units on their property, and non-profit groups will be allowed even greater options if they so choose.

The allowed density of a lot (how many houses can be built) is directly related to the lot size. The new ordinances allow increased density, if housing is an affordable unit.

For example, a private lot in the Residential A zone would need 120,000 square feet of land to build a second market-value residence. But if this second building is an affordable housing unit, the lot would only need 60,000 square feet of buildable land.

If a non-profit group is building an affordable unit, only 30,000 square feet is needed.

The density allowed increases in different residential zones and in commercial zones.

Under a sunset clause, the new ordinances will expire after five years, on Dec. 31, 2018, or when both of the following criteria are met: a total of 50 affordable home ownership units and 30 affordable rental units have been created. The town now has 41 home ownership units and 17 rental units.

“I think there was a concern with leaving it open-ended and having ability of such increased density without a point at which you’re going to stop and reassess it,” Town Planner Jane Weidman said to explain the reasoning behind the sunset clause.

Second Warden Ken Lacoste added that the 50 ownership/30 rental cap encourages building of both affordable ownership and rental options.

“I’m very pleased to see that it is getting attention. It’s an on-going issue for this community,” said Bryan Wilson, a former member of the council who was involved in early affordable discussions.

Beach Pavilion renovation

The Town Council expressed a desire to go with less expensive renovation to the Fred Benson Town Beach Pavilion than had previously been proposed. An estimate for the renovation — needed to increase bathroom size and other amenities — was $281,586. The council also said it wanted to improve the parking lot outside the pavilion. The council discussed the matter at its Feb. 20 meeting.

It was at a Feb. 6 council meeting when Town Recreation Director Robbie Closter offered four proposals to upgrade the pavilion.

The four choices, designed by Northeast Collaborative Architects, included renovating the existing building, the least expensive option. The other three choices, each more costly than the last, would mean demolishing the current structure and building a new one.

Closter cautioned the council that the $281,586 amount may not be fully accurate, especially if the council takes into consideration upgrading the parking. The council voted to have Closter work with Town Manager Nancy Dodge to develop a more detailed plan of costs and work to be performed. The council will then review the plan and include costs in the upcoming fiscal year budget starting July 2013. Closter suggested there may be some grant money available for the work.

Dodge also said that other necessary repairs to the Beach Pavilion — not relating to general renovation but to damage caused by October’s Hurricane Sandy and following storms — would be completed by this May.

Interstate Rate Case

Members of the public expressed concern over Interstate Navigation’s proposed rate increase at the council meeting. They also said that the council has not been holding enough public discussion about the rate case.

“If the town is negotiating a settlement without a lot of input from the public, it’s concerning that the town may reach an agreement with Interstate ... without having an appropriate time for the public to have input,” said Barbara MacMullan.

Ferry company Interstate Navigation filed with the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on Nov. 27, 2012, for permission to collect an additional $1.3 million in revenue, money that would come from changes to the traditional ferry pricing that would do away with discounts for year-round island residents and decrease car fees while increasing freight charges.

The Town has asked the company to reach an agreement that includes four requests: moving to a revenue cap rather than a fixed rate schedule; retaining commuter discounts and cards; including the high-speed ferries into rate re-considerations, and maintaining the current minimum off-season schedule.

Town Solicitor Kathy Merolla explained that the town has yet to meet with the company, and in closed session would only report information the town received about talks between the PUC and Interstate.

Kathy Szabo, from the audience, also expressed concern over the proposed increased freight charges.

Bill Penn, speaking as the president of the Block Island Residents Association, was also concerned about Interstate Navigation’s rate filing and asked the council to report any information it could about the status of the rate situation.

Council members said that they have the same overall concerns that much of the public does, and are working to address these concerns.

Moped Settlement

Despite a request from a company owner, the council will not amend a settlement between the town and the island’s moped rental companies.

As part of a five-year agreement recently approved by the council, moped companies agreed to pay a $40-per-moped license fee and an additional $40-per-moped donation to the Medical Center and Rescue Squad. The moped companies also agreed to convert their fuel to synthetic oil to reduce emissions.

At a Feb. 9 meeting, however, Willis Brown, owner of the Moped Man, explained that the town would not grant the permit until he pays his donation. He argued that withholding the license is “clearly unethical and unlawful” because it could be seen as soliciting a gift in exchange for the license.

At the Feb. 20 meeting, Town Solicitor Kathy Merolla said that it is not unethical, because individual council members are not asking for the donation. In addition, the donation is the result of a legal settlement, signed by the company owners including Brown. The council voted to have Merolla write a letter to Brown explaining this.


Town Manager Nancy Dodge presented the council with suggestions from various boards about town fees. Some are calling for an increase in fees. The council took no action, but members will continue to hear the suggestions to prepare for budget planning for the next fiscal year beginning in July 2013.

Rob Gilpin thanked Shirlyne Gobern and Chris Warfel for their volunteer contributions to the North Light. He presented both with artwork, and the audience applauded. Gaffett then recognized Gilpin’s efforts to preserve the island’s iconic lighthouse.

The Old Harbor Task Force suggested that a park in front of Old Harbor named “Pole Harbor Park” be renamed “Old Harbor Park.” However, after much discussion, the council did not rename the park.

The council approved an application by Charles Gale for a commercial shellfishing license.

The council reopened previously approved meeting minutes of Jan. 7 in order to correct errors in the recorded minutes.

Solicitor Merolla reported that property owner Joseph Pinney has installed a new septic tank in his property, but only after the town filed suit in court. For over nine years, Town Wastewater Inspector Don Thimble had been working to get Pinney to replace the tank, which had been deemed inadequate by Town Wastewater Ordinances.

The meeting finished in executive session, so the council could discuss five different instances of litigation.

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