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State law gives developer edge in Warren housing plans

Zoning board, council would have no say, but options remain 

By Ted Hayes
Posted 5/5/20

Settler’s Green, the housing proposal that would see the construction of 12 homes and two 54-unit apartment buildings on former farmland just south of Frerichs Farm, is being proposed under the …

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State law gives developer edge in Warren housing plans

Zoning board, council would have no say, but options remain 

Posted

Settler’s Green, the housing proposal that would see the construction of 12 homes and two 54-unit apartment buildings on former farmland just south of Frerichs Farm, is being proposed under the Rhode Island Low and Moderate Income Housing Act, a 2004 law that gives developers of affordable housing significant advantages when they agree to deed-restrict a portion of the units they build to low for moderate income buyers or renters. 

The state law applies in towns which have less than 10 percent of their housing stock deed-restricted for low to moderate income residents; in Warren, just under 5 percent of Warren housing units are deeded as such.

In towns that don’t meet the standard, like Warren, developers do not need zoning approval for projects that otherwise would require variances and other zoning relief. No review by the Warren Town Council would occur, either - all that is required under the law is planning commission approval.

Still, towns have some say, and can fight projects which officials believe do not adhere to their Comprehensive Town Plan, or that cause negative impacts on groundwater, the environment, infrastructure or neighborhoods.

What to expect

The official process will start when Last Ever applies to the town, requesting what is known as a comprehensive permit for the project. Once the application is received, the town will form a Technical Review Committee made up of town officials whose areas of concern could be impacted by the development. 

Warren Town Planner Bob Rulli would chair it and would be joined by several members of the planning commission, the police and fire chiefs, the town solicitor, and other officials who could speak to its impact on roads, sewers, water supply and the like. The town also plans to bring in its own engineers and consultants, so they can independently study possible impacts. A portion of those costs would be Last Ever’s responsibility to pay for, and Mr. Rulli said he the town has two engineering and consulting firms at the ready, Woodard and Curran, and Fuss & O’Neill. It also has the ability to call in The Beta Group, another engineering firm, if need be.

Once the Technical Review Committee has gone over the proposal, the application would then be forwarded to the Warren Planning Commission for review and a vote.

Should the planning board deny the application, Last Ever would have the right under state law to appeal to the statewide Housing Review Committee and if necessary, the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

Grounds for denial

As he informally introduced the project to the Warren Planning Commission last Monday, Last Ever attorney William Landry said the town’s comprehensive plan specifically singles out the area where the project is being proposed, as being acceptable for the type of high density affordable housing Settler’s Green would bring.

But on Friday, Mr. Rulli said that is not the case. The last time the town had a comprehensive plan approved and accepted by the state was 2003, one year before the housing law was passed. In that plan, no mention was made of the property, he said. Though a later draft revision did make mention of that area, that was never added to the comprehensive plan and therefore is not a part of it, Mr. Rulli said.

The town’s zoning ordinance (Section 32-161) spells out the reasons for which the planning commission can deny a comprehensive permit application:

“If the proposal is not ‘consistent with local needs,’ ... including but not limited to, the needs identified in the Town of Warren Comprehensive Plan, the Town of Warren Subdivision Regulations, Warren Zoning Ordinance and all procedures promulgated in conformance with the Warren Comprehensive Plan,” a denial can be brought, the ordinance reads.

“They don’t get a pass on anything with respect to environmental, stormwater (regulations) or clean water,” Mr. Rulli said. “They get relief from (standard reasons for zoning variances including) setbacks, lot coverage, things of that nature.”

In addition, he said, the property lies within the town’s Kickemuit River Overlay zoning district, which provides “an extra level of scrutiny with respect” to stormwater runoff, he said.

On Friday, Mr. Rulli said that he had not yet heard of the efforts of “Save Bettencourt Farm,” a grassroots opposition group that in just over a week has gained more than 800 members and raised more than $1,000 to help fight the development. He cautioned that town officials need to proceed cautiously and follow the state laws to which the town is bound, and not appear biased as the project unfolds.

“The town can’t say ‘No’ because the neighbors don’t like it,” he said. “The town has to be very careful that we don’t appear to be prejudicial. So I can’t comment at all about what they’re doing, or not.”

Still, he said the town will do due diligence and research the project, and any potential impacts, thoroughly.

“Things like fire protection, stormwater and transportation impacts, those all need to be taken into consideration,” he said. “We’re not going to rely on their expert” to study the impacts without the town doing its own research into the project’s potential impacts.

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