The Block Island Times

Planning Board tackles zoning issues

By Joel Taylor | Mar 17, 2014

The Block Island Planning Board met on Wednesday, March 12, to solidify its recommendations to Town Council concerning town zoning regulations. Town Planner Jane Weidman had received requests by Building Official Marc Tillson earlier in the week to make some recommendations to Town Council.

According to Weidman, Tillson thought it was important to somehow manage household generator use. He was mostly concerned with noise. Chair Margaret Comings added, “the more people who use generators for their power, the more expensive electricity becomes for those who are still on the grid. That's also something to think about.” The Planning Board decided to make a recommendation to Town Council that a cap should be placed on generator load capacity, rather than actual size.

The Planning Board will recommend a cap of 20 kilowatts be placed on household generators, which is enough to power vital utilities and hot water. “Most people use gas for heat and cooking, anyway,” member Dennis Heinz said. Certain establishments, such as Champlin's dock, will be exempt from the cap because a generator is their principal power source. Vice Chair Sven Risom also said, “you have to be able to get something larger if you need to.” A special use permit will be available for those who need generators with a larger load capacity, as per the Planning Board's recommendations.

Tillson had also expressed to Weidman some limits to his ability to deal with junk vehicles that violate zoning regulations. Currently, outdoor storage of a vehicle is in violation of zoning ordinances if the vehicle does not run, or if it is not registered. Tillson would like the Town to require up-to-date inspection stickers on vehicles that are stored outdoors, particularly from the state in which it is registered, since some states do not require inspections. This would make his job easier, because people currently have the ability to manipulate the situation.

The Planning Board will recommend to the Town Council an updated zoning ordinance that declares a vehicle stored outdoors in violation if it doesn't run, if it's not registered, or if there's no current inspection sticker from the state in which it is registered. If the vehicle in question does not pass all three requirements, it must be moved in 30 days.

The Board also had a lengthy discussion about how the Town should regulate solar panel installations, regarding lot coverage for those installed on the ground in particular. Board member and architect Sam Bird, who was not present at the meeting, had done some investigation on the matter, and sent his findings to the Board. He expressed to the Board that 750 square feet of actual panels would be sufficient for residential use in case of a power outage.

The problem that arose in the discussion was exactly what to regulate, whether it be total lot coverage of an array, or simply the collective panel size of an array. Due to panel angles and spacing, it would be difficult to regulate lot coverage of solar arrays, so the Board agreed it would be best to keep it simple and strictly regulate coverage of the panels themselves. “Solar panels are much more efficient these days,” Risom said. He said most coherently, “we shouldn't completely eliminate the footprint regulation, but use panel size as the footprint when determining lot coverage.”

Zoning code for Block Island limits properties to four percent coverage of their respective lot size, so for those with smaller lots, installation of solar panels becomes problematic. “People will have some decisions to make. In some cases, other options will have to be explored,” Comings said.

The Planning Board's main concern was the intrusion of solar panel installments on neighboring properties. With a 4-0 vote, since Risom had to recuse himself from the vote, the Planning Board decided to recommend to Town Council a restriction of panel coverage to 750 square feet, and array height of eight feet. There will also be a Special Use Permit for solar installations for those with exceptional needs, as recommended by the Planning Board.

In addition to the discussions about zoning, Risom presented to the Board a new idea. He would like to create a sub-committee to the Planning Board to create a plan, or vision, for the management of Block Island's town-owned properties. The committee would be made up of non-board members, except Risom, who would chair the committee. “We've been dealing with our properties one piece of the puzzle at a time. I'd like to have a more cohesive plan,” Risom said. Heinz agreed, saying, “nothing gets fixed until it falls apart.”

Risom said the purpose of the Planning Board's sub-committee would be to clarify objectives and needs of the community, prioritize those needs, and to present a vision to Town Council. “The grand idea is to have strict deadlines for the committee to make submissions to Town Council that create a vision for the next five years or so,” Risom said. Risom also said he'd hope to have the “vision” completed and submitted within the next “few seasons."

The Board was not overly optimistic that the deadline could be met, but they supported the idea. Comings said it was important, and that structures like the Coast Guard Station need “plans and a vision for future use before money gets put into it.” “Currently, it's a very expensive bunk house,” member Mary Anderson said of the Coast Guard Station. Anderson continued to say, “I think [a plan for the future] is something we've been talking about. The committee's reports would be a great tool for people who are making decisions.”

Also regarding Risom's proposed sub-committee, Comings stressed the importance of having open meetings, especially in the summer. “People have wonderful ideas, and people who visit in the summer have a different perspective that could really help us,” Comings said. After being given their support, Risom told the Board he would create a draft of his plans for a sub-committee and submit it to Town Council within the next two weeks.

Before the meeting adjourned, member Socha Cohen said, “We should thank Sam [Bird] for his efforts towards the solar power work.” The Planning Board scheduled two more meetings in order to continue work on the updated version of their Comprehensive Plan. The next meeting will be on March 19 at 4 p.m.

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