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Planners mull in-law apartments

Debate on how to expand Jamestown’s zoning ordinance to permit additional accessory-dwelling units – also called in-law apartments – dominated the June 20 meeting of the Planning Commission. The dialogue is being held at the request of the Town Council, which has asked the commission to make recommendations to broaden approval of accessory-dwelling units for occupancy by family members of property owners.

Currently, Jamestown permits such apartments for affordable housing only. Units carry a 30-year-deed restriction maintaining “affordability,” and the unit and its tenants must meet all state criteria. But Town Planner Lisa Bryer indicated that in the three years the ordinance has been in effect, not a single property owner in Jamestown has taken advantage of the provision.

She cautioned commissioners considering expansion of the provision to consider carefully the impact on water usage. “What I think makes Jamestown a little bit different than other communities is our limitations in terms of septic and wells, and also water.”

She added, “I think we can make the assumption that if we allow accessory-dwelling units for just family members that it may not increase our water use as much as if we allow it by right for every household.”

Commissioners reviewed ordinances and regulations implemented by five towns in Rhode Island – Bristol, Charlestown, Little Compton, New Shoreham and Warren – which permit accessorydwelling units. All but one, New Shoreham, permit the units for occupancy by family members only.

Commissioners also explored the pros and cons of extending approval to property owners who rent accessory dwelling units to town employees.

Commission Vice Chairman Duncan Pendlebury maintains that it’s vitally important to help ensure that the island’s public employees make their home in Jamestown.

“I think that what we were really thinking about when we put a statement in the comprehensive plan is that we need to address the issue of public employees not being able to live on the island because the cost of living here,” Pendlebury said. “We were thinking about the police. It seems to be ever more important to have the police, as much as possible, living here on the island.”

Jamestown Shores resident Sav Rebecchi questioned commissioners about the potential burden for a landlord should his tenant be laid off or fired by the town.

“By allowing a municipal employee to have the opportunity and then the employee loses his job, now the landlord is forced to comply,” said Michael Swistak, chairman of the commission. “Now that he no longer has a municipal employee, who removes him?”

Swistak wondered whether there was a better way to address the housing issue for town employees. “Maybe there’s another way to handle public employees outside of this discussion,” he said. “If there is a public employee who needs housing, maybe there’s a tax rebate or incentive to house a public employee as opposed to an accessory apartment.”

Also discussed was whether accessory units would be prohibited in some zones and on properties with non-conforming lots or properties needing zoning variances to construct new units.

The dialogue also included limiting the size of an accessorydwelling unit to 33 percent of the home, and establishing a minimum unit size at 300 square feet.

The process to obtain approvals and to appeal were also discussed and will become part of the draft document Bryer is preparing that will outline specific issues for consideration.

In other business, the Newport Overlook Association, who is responsible for management and control of the Wyndham Newport Overlook Resort at 150 Bay View Drive, is on record as opposing the wind turbine planned for Taylor Point. Although no representative of the association was present at the Planning Commission’s meeting, a letter from the association to the Zoning Board was entered into the public record.

The association contends in its letter, “In addition to obstructed views, the noise and vibrations that will emanate from a wind turbine located within 600 feet of the resort will also hinder peace and quiet, and pose a legitimate safety concern for resort owners, guests and staff. Infrasonic vibrations and infrasound are known to lead to health ailments, including, but not limited to, sleep deprivation and headaches.”

The letter also states that the association favors green initiatives, including wind turbine energy, but asks the town to reconsider the current plan and relocate the wind turbine to a more isolated location.

Bryer is awaiting new state guidelines on wind turbines due out in July. Planning commissioners have also requested additional information, including data and reports on turbine noise, glare from stanchion lights, height comparisons, safety records, failure rates and impact on property values.

“That letter is one other piece of this process,” said Swistak. “It just happened to come and be delivered while we are waiting for more information.”

Given the volume of information being sought, Bryer was unable to predict if a windmill-siting report currently being prepared would be available by the commission’s next scheduled meeting on July 18.