WESTERLY —The Town Council heard several questions and concerns from its own members, residents, lawyers and business representatives about elements of the proposed Comprehensive Plan revision on Monday.
During the nearly three-hour-long discussion, the council decided to extend the deadline for written comments on the revised plan to Dec. 19 from the previous deadline of Dec. 9. The public will also have opportunities to make comments during yet-to-be-scheduled public hearings before the Planning Board and the Town Council.
A proposal to switch from land development regulations based on how properties are used to a code based on physical form drew several questions and concerns. Gail Mallard, who served as chairwoman of the citizens advisory committee that did some of the earliest work on the plan rewrite, called for a clearer definition of a form-based code than the one offered in the revised plan.
"At minimum the average citizen should understand what they are buying into," Mallard said.
Jennifer Brinton, owner of Grey Sail Brewing of Rhode Island, described the ordeal she faced when seeking approval for a renovation of her Canal Street business. According to Brinton, a former town planner insisted that she change her plans to comply with his insistence on form- based standards. She said the planner's requirements would have entailed "gutting" the foundation of existing buildings, use of masonry rather than siding, and a different roof line. "I couldn't afford it nor would the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission allow it," Brinton said.
Town Councilor Brian McCuin, co-owner of a construction company, said form-based standards would result in higher costs for builders and home buyers.
But Thomas J. Liguori Jr., a lawyer who frequently appears before the town's planning and zoning boards, said the town would benefit from adoption of additional standards in its historic districts, whether they are called form-based standards or something else. Liguori was a member of the two previous Comprehensive Plan citizens committees. He noted that the current plan calls for creation of development standards. Failure to adopt standards for the downtown area caused one proposed development "far more consternation than should have been required because we didn't have a standard," Liguori said.
Liguori and Brinton, then speaking in her role as chairwoman of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce board of directors, both raised questions about a proposal to group land designated as open space conservation and commercial recreation as open space. Brinton said the change would be a hardship for golf course owners. "We ask that they remain commercial recreation and not part of open space, as I do believe this would open the door to more restrictive zoning changes," Brinton said.
Brinton and McCuin also criticized the plan's recommendation to require charging stations for electric vehicles at some new developments — as is increasingly common throughout the country. "Are we trying to get businesses to come into this town or are we putting roadblocks up?" McCuin asked.
The proposed plan revision includes 201 action items, compared with 57 action items in the current plan, which was adopted in 2010. Mallard called for a reduction in the number of such items and also asked for an estimate on the cost of implementing the proposed action items. They include development of a municipal human services department, development of new zoning standards and regulations, water quality monitoring, development of new databases and development of neighborhood plans.
Mallard also called for fewer changes to the zoning regulations, saying she counted 18 proposed zoning code revisions and 18 additional proposed amendments to development standards or regulations. A proposal to allow for additional accessory dwelling units also caught Mallard's attention.
"Is this the end of single family zoning or the end to medium density zoning? Are people who think they are in medium density going to find out they are in high density?" she asked.
Residents are mostly interested in preserving the character of he town and its natural resources, Mallard said.
A proposed restriction on expanded commercial development could "hamstring the Town Council" and hinder potential economic development opportunities, Liguori said.
"Why prohibit a technology research facility from seeking a zone change ... isn't that exactly who we say we want to recruit — high-paid technology jobs?" Liguori asked.
Scott D. Levesque, the town's zoning attorney, called the plan's section on affordable housing "the most important piece" and noted that the town has failed to progress toward goals for increasing the availability of affordable housing set out in the 2010 plan. State law requires municipalities to have affordable housing that is equal to 10% of its entire housing stock. The town is now at 5.22% and is aiming at adding 528 additional affordable units by 2032.
"What happened? By now [since 2010] you should have gained 99 units. Instead, you lost 7," Levesque said.
The town should consider adjusting current zoning regulations to mandate higher percentages of required affordable units for new developments, increase density requirements for specific properties, use mixed-use developments to add affordable housing and work with nonprofit groups, Levesque said. He also suggested the potential for requiring the owners of 150 unapproved "illegal" apartments in the town to market the units as affordable.
Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. assured residents and those who attended the meeting that the council would conduct a close review of the plan. "There is plenty of time to fix it and we will fix it. We're not stupid, we're not going to do something that is wrong. We're not going to do something that hurts businesses — there are enough business people up here," Cooke said.
The working draft of the proposed Comprehensive Plan revision is available for review at www.westerlyri.gov/CP2020.
Written comments may be submitted to the Westerly Department of Development Services, Planning Office in person or by mail to Town of Westerly, Planning Office 45 Broad St., Westerly, RI 02891 or via email at CompPlanFeedback@westerlyri.gov Comments can also be submitted at http://westerlyri.gov/FormCenter/Comprehensive-Plan-14/Comprehensive-Plan-Feedback-61.