Council continues discussion on flexible zoning, substandard lots


The Johnston Town Council voted 4-0 on Monday to continue a public hearing regarding numerous changes to the zoning code until Town Planner Tom Deller can speak on the matter at the Feb. 10 meeting.

Solicitor Dylan Conley said there are “a lot of moving parts” to the ordinance, but noted that several of the amendments are designed to line up the town’s zoning more closely with state language. Some of those changes include building height and a new definition of adult entertainment.

“The reason for that is the advertising requirements, and the requirement we get a recommendation from the Planning Board for a change to the zoning code means that any time we go to change the zoning code … we go to change as much as we can, one fell swoop,” Conley said.

A bulk of the night’s debate centered on two sections of the code – flexible zoning and substandard lots of record. Conley said the former is aimed at working with developers to expand the boundaries of how they can build on property, such as being able to alter frontage and setbacks.

“The greatest flexibility comes with their frontage, so if you can imagine some of the older neighborhoods or the classic main streets where all of the buildings are right on top of each other, it’s impossible to build like that now under current zoning,” Conley said. “You don’t want that level of density everywhere, you want a counterpoint to it. We start to have that flexibility to put all those houses on top of each other, you can do things like require that a park is built next door or a large-scale drainage area.”

That give-and-take is essential to the proposal, which Conley reminded is not a given for developers. He said they would have to go before the Planning Board and argue that flexible zoning would be more beneficial for the town than conventional zoning.

Conley said the benefits could be wide-ranging, including preservation of open space and historical and archeological resources and protecting the environment and real value of property.

“Really we’re giving more developer control over how they want to set up their parcels, but in return the town has more control over what ancillary benefits the community gets,” Conley said. “So the trade-off is sort of more flexibility for the individual buildings, but net better operations from the planning perspective on stuff like drainage or density in the whole area, walkability, street design.”

Conley said Deller would be more helpful in answering direct policy questions, one of the factors in the eventual vote that continued the hearing until next month.

“I am familiar with how the regulations work and I am comfortable with them, but regarding what would qualify as the best interest of the town, I think [Deller] would be more qualified to answer that,” Conley said. “No one has a right to flexible design review. They have to prove that the town’s interest is flexible design review, so because of that safety, I don’t really have any concerns of the town opening itself up or making itself vulnerable to some type of development.”

Mayor Joseph Polisena spoke briefly in support of a change to the substandard lots of record section of the ordinance. Conley said the material changes included requiring a title report for any and all lots that, since Dec. 14, 1994, “were or are immediately adjacent to or abutting such lot or group of contiguous lots.”

He said that date was not arbitrary, but represents when the town enacted a law mandating the merging of substandard lots. Conley believes there are still substandard lots scattered across town.

“So now if you’re applying for one of the substandard lots to be built upon, it’s on the applicant’s burden to show the title reports that the same owner never owned both the substandard lot and the adjacent lot,” Conley said. “If that ever happened since Dec. 14, 1994, those lots were merged by operation of law and that substandard lot doesn’t qualify as its own lot anymore.”

Polisena said it was a “great idea,” and he wanted to bring Deller in to answer any further questions from the board.

“What really bothers me is when someone builds a house on a postage-stamp lot, this will help, I think, curb building on those small postage-stamp lots for profit, or as we call it, substandard lots of record,” Polisena said. “Now for every house built, there’s approximately 2.3 children per household … We have to educate those children. We’re obligated to.”

Polisena continued that one student costs the town about $15,000 per year, and special education can run as high as $40,000 per year. He said those costs are compounded by trash pickup, streetlights and infrastructure maintenance, among other factors.

“More houses on undersized lots just taxes our infrastructure and our entire system,” Polisena said. “We currently have a stable tax base, no increase in the past three years. We’re looking to hold the line on the taxes in the 2020-21 budget, I hope that brings a smile to your face. We need sensible, stable zoning, not building on any undersized lots that have space on it.”


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