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Tiverton girds for a growth spurt

As commuter rail nears, big developments line up, and housing market heats, town told it better have a plan

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 10/15/20

By Bruce Burdett

TIVERTON — With a number of big developments in the pipeline and commuter rail headed this way, Tiverton faces a potential population boom for which it had best be …

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Tiverton girds for a growth spurt

As commuter rail nears, big developments line up, and housing market heats, town told it better have a plan


TIVERTON — With a number of big developments in the pipeline and commuter rail headed this way, Tiverton faces a potential population boom for which it had best be prepared.

That was the premise for a joint meeting last week by the Planning Board and Town Council.

“The commuter train is coming to Fall River,” Council President Patricia Hilton said, “and what does that mean for us? … Tiverton has an unfortunate habit of trying to shut the barn door after the horses have already left.”

This, she said, is the time to be sure that growth is balanced and consistent with the town’s Comprehensive Plan.

Some agreed that Tiverton had best be armed with zoning and other defenses to protect against out-of-control development that might threaten water supplies and strain town services.

Others were skeptical both about the pace of growth and the need for restrictions of any sort.

Developers knocking at the door

Even before the railroad comes — and it is coming, the Town Council was told,Town Planner Jennifer Siciliano said the town already faces a long list of major projects in the works:

• Most recently, a proposed 180-unit apartment complex on Main Road.

• A plan for 275 housing units on Souza Road (just north of Route 24).

• A 52-unit condominium project on Main Road.

• Expansion of the Brookdale Sakonnet senior living complex.

• And a number of major and minor subdivisions elsewhere around town.

While the state forecasts that parts of Newport County will lose population over the next two decades, Tiverton is expected to add nearly a thousand people — from a population of 16,036 now to 17,002 by 2040.

And that growth does not take into account the arrival of a commuter rail station next door in Fall River that will enable people to live here but work in Boston — three trains every morning, three every evening, Ms. Siciliano said.

Rail “has been talked about for years but it now looks like it is actually going forward.” The contract for the first phase, construction of stations in Freetown and Fall River, has been awarded with completion expected by 2023.

More people, she said, means more demands on schools, police, fire, public works and senior centers along with challenges involving water supplies and wastewater.

She listed things towns can do to put the brakes on development, among them:

• Re-zone for lower density in sensitive watershed areas. Towns “need to be careful with people’s property rights,” she said, and requiring large house lots can lead to accusations that a town is trying to be exclusionary.” Still, it has been done successfully in many places, Little Compton among them.

• Impact fees — Tiverton already has one in place that charges every new house large enough for families with children $2,980 used to pay for school expansion projects.

• Conservation easements and open space purchases. This might be one of the most effective methods, she said.

It’s been a number of years since Tiverton was re-zoned, Planning Board Chairwoman Susan Gill said. A “reasonable approach” would be town-wide rezoning that could change allowed uses in certain areas.

“I completely agree,” said Vice Chairman Stuart Hardy, adding that the town should look at enabling more clustered developments that protect open land.

He also said he thinks Tiverton should consider an expansion of impact fees assessed for new homes. Whereas the present impact fee only supports schools, added fees could help with police, fire, public works, senior center …

“Those costs should not be borne entirely by existing families.”

But Town Council member Donna Cook said it all sounds like overreaction.

“From 2020 to 2040 we are talking about an increase of 966 people. That’s not a big deal to me … That’s like 48 people per year.”

“When you intervene and put your thumb on the scale when it comes to people’s property rights, you incidentally cause other problems — people lose use of their land.”

Planning Board member David Perry wondered whether the commuter train impact will be all that significant.

“COVID  has stopped a lot of people from traveling up to Boston … A lot of people are working from home right now and a lot of companies are liking what they are seeing.”

“There seems to be a huge assumption being made that everyone who uses this rail is going to move to Tiverton,” council member Nancy Driggs said, noting that Westport, Little Compton and other towns will share in that growth. She agreed that the population increases don’t sound so dramatic.

But Stephen Clarke said “the fact that a lot of people don’t have to commute now could put pressure on places like Tiverton.” The ability to work remotely could make houses here more desirable.”

“Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport are pretty much at build-out” and have little land left, Ms. Hilton said. “We, on the other hand, have a lot.”

“I’m sensitive to people’s property rights,” she said, but “the question is, what is the right density so we don’t end up with more housing than we can support.

Water worries

In particular, Tiverton needs to consider “how much housing can we have and make sure people still have enough safe, potable water to drink,” Ms. Hilton said.

“We don’t have an aquifer and our soils are poor for septic systems.”

“There are any number of people whose wells are not re-charging right now because the water level is so low … “

She said real estate agents tell her that “there are people from everywhere looking to move here. I think we should be looking at all of these things.”

Two things that the Planning Board deals with constantly, Mr. Hardy said, are:

• The lack of water in the aquifer. “All of the private wells are drilled into fissures in bedrock.

• And, “Our soils are terrible for development.” Wastewater issue “create real limitations for conventional subdivisions.”

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