Math used to assess density of Yarn Mill development faces scrutiny

Planner used tax assessor's number to set density for Robin Rug development: Here's why that matters

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 5/5/22

Advocates are questioning why the Town of Bristol used a generous measurement to allow more residential units in redevelopment of Thames Street mill.

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Math used to assess density of Yarn Mill development faces scrutiny

Planner used tax assessor's number to set density for Robin Rug development: Here's why that matters


A draft Master Plan Decision regarding the much-discussed Bristol Yarn Mill development — which will go before the Bristol Planning Board for approval on Thursday, May 12 — contains an amendment that has been flagged by the Friends of Historic Bristol advocacy group as improper and against town regulations.

The amendment in question relates to the gross floor area (GFA) of the building, which is part of the equation to determine how many units can be put into the large residential development.

When Brady Sullivan Properties, LLC, prospective developer of the site, surveyed the existing conditions of the building in 2021 — data that was presented to the Planning Board in its most recently revised Master Plan application on April 14 — they listed the GFA of the property as 227,286 square feet. This number cannot include what amounts to unlivable space, such as the basement, which would be dedicated to parking, and does not include things like utility closets, stairwells and hallways.

However, within the drafted decision letter (dated April 27, 2022) that is now going before the planning board, the town lists the GFA of the development as 296,717 square feet — nearly 70,000 square feet above what engineering firm Fuss & O’Neill had assessed in their site review.

The change has significant implications regarding whether or not the developer would be allowed to create 127 housing units at Bristol Yarn, and is the subject of claims by Friends of Historic Bristol that the change was made nefariously in order to allow the larger development to pass through without altering the density requirements set forth in the town’s special zoning ordinance for the parcel.

Town Planner Dianne Williamson confirmed in an interview Tuesday that the higher GFA number was garnered from the database used to record tax assessments for properties throughout the town.

“I decided the best way to approach this number is the Tax Assessor’s database, which is public data that I felt I could rely on,” Williamson said.

The Friends of Historic Bristol group contends that this is an improper use of that database, considering the database posts a notice on its interface that states, “Disclaimer: This information is for tax assessment purposes and is not warranted.”

Friends of Historic Bristol contends that basing the density of the development on the higher GFA number means that number must have included unlivable space within the floor plan of the building that physically cannot be developed into housing — such as areas where no flooring actually exists — hence why the engineering firm’s assessment of the building’s GFA did not include it in the first place.

“Brady Sullivan’s application was being considered on its own merits, but now it is being decided using unreliable tax data that are not warranted and do not reflect the use of interior areas of the building,” the group writes in a report on the issue. “If the Town is not basing its decision on the application, Brady Sullivan’s Fuss & O’Neill 2021 existing conditions report, they cannot substitute their own speculation regarding the site.”

Density calculation has implications
If the Master Plan Decision passes through the Planning Board next week, it will ultimately be the Bristol Town Council that holds the key to whether or not the development, as proposed, will pass through to another round of environmental permitting.

In 2008, the Council capped the number of units that could be built on the site at 98, and anything above that would require a change to the special zoning ordinance that was created specifically for the parcel.
“The density cap the Council put on this is, to me, what is coming to be revisited,” Williamson said.

However, the Friends of Historic Bristol group contends that basing the density calculation on the larger GFA number would enable the development to be approved for 127 units without requiring the Bristol Town Council to make an additional change to the zoning ordinance — which as of its last amendment currently allows for one dwelling unit per 2,250 square feet of space.

If the smaller number put forth by Fuss & O’Neill is utilized, the developer would be limited to a maximum of 101 units. With the larger number, if the Planning Board approves the draft decision, no such zoning amendment is necessary to allow them to create 127 units.

This is a big deal to the Friends of Historic Bristol, who insist that the Town Council would not have a legal avenue to change that 1-unit-per-2,250 GFA density number, outside of a single provision that allows for a 20 percent increase in density for units listed as affordable.

Density aside, the proposal as put forth would still require multiple amendments to the zoning ordinance in order to be approved by the Council, including:

  • A change to the base cap of 98 units
  • A change to the density of commercial square footage, from the 22,000 square feet dictated in the zoning ordinance, to 6,300 square feet proposed by Brady Sullivan
  • A change to allow parking spaces to be nine feet wide rather than 10 feet wide
  • A change to allow below ground parking spaces to be single striped instead of double striped

Planning Board meeting will be revealing

The May 12 meeting will reveal whether or not this maneuver to change the GFA calculation is acceptable to the three members of the Planning Board who ultimately voted in favor of the 127-unit proposal last month.

Williamson said she is open to re-examining the GFA calculation if that is the will of the Planning Board.

“If it’s something that needs to be refined as part of the planning board’s findings, I can certainly look at it with the solicitor and see what he recommends,” she said.

Williamson said that a key concern to approaching the project has been finding the right balance between the density of units and what is feasible for the project to succeed.

“I think how we get there is important, but I think it’s also about what does the Town want for the development of this building, what’s going to be feasible, and what will be an outcome that is acceptable,” she said.

It’s at least one opinion shared by the Friends of Historic Bristol about the development.

“The site needs to be developed using the laws that are in place for the development,” said Marianne Bergenhotlz on behalf of the Friends of Historic Bristol. “We’re all for the development and we wish whoever the developer is well, and good luck on it, and I hope it’s a big success. It’s a very valuable property, and I’m sure it will be great for the town — but let’s get it right.”

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