Planning Board members question Council’s charge to slow development
The Planning Board met last Wednesday (10/6) to review yearly planning and affordable housing reports but also to revisit the charge given to them by the Town Council last year seeking ways to slow growth in town. The problem was that not all the members were in agreement that growth in East Greenwich should be slowed.
The Town Council’s original request was prompted by Town Planner Lisa Bourbonnais’s annual planning report last year, which highlighted a potential 400 housing units “in the queue” to eventually be built – a large number in recent history of East Greenwich. Town Council members were alarmed with the potential impact of so many units on the town, noting that schools were already at or over capacity and that the town had limited sewer capacity. They asked the Planning Board to look into ways that could slow down further development.
At the Town Council meeting Sept. 13, Councilor Mike Donegan expressed frustration that the Planning Board had not come back to them with some ideas, calling it “unacceptable.” So the Town Council passed a resolution that night directing “the Planning Department to work with the Planning Board and Administration and Town Solicitor to accelerate the investigation of growth management techniques with particular importance on those that can be implemented quickly.”
But on Wednesday it appeared not everyone on the Planning Board agreed with that basic premise. Members Matt Yoder and Matt Renninger both voiced opposition to adopting language that would stymie growth. And they both took issue with the idea that the town’s current infrastructure should guide future development.
“Don’t use infrastructure as an excuse to not grow the town,” said Yoder. “There are ways we can balance growth. In this report, the recommendation for the sewage treatment plant is to not grow it. But I think that is a recipe for disaster…. “
Both Renninger and Yoder said there needed to be more housing in town for young families and that the town already had a lot of housing for people 55 and older.
Other members of the Planning Board said what they were looking for was controlled growth not no growth.
“I think there are times when the town needs to take growth into consideration,” said member Ben Lupowitz. “Not stopping growth but making sure it happens in a manageable way.”
Later in the meeting, he added, “I don’t think anyone’s against growth … but not everyone shares your perspective. We have to be mindful of the entire town and also the costs of the current infrastructure.”
“I’m not trying to slow growth,” said Planning Board chairman Nate Ginsburg. “I’m just trying to get the growth to be more consistent with zoning.”
After the meeting, Town Planner Bourbonnais said growth has long been a concern of the Planning Board.
“East Greenwich is known as a family-friendly community with a high level of services for residents. That does make it ideal for families but the tension comes from the cost of providing those services.”
Here are the three areas the Planning Board has been focusing on to slow growth, as outlined by the Planning Department’s report (Growth Management Update 10/06/2021) to the board Wednesday night:
- Conservation – following the February and March, 2021, workshops on growth, land preservation appeared to grab the imagination and enthusiasm of most of the members of the Planning Board, Town Council and Land Trust. With such substantial agreement, it seemed prudent to devote resources to exploring ways the Town can acquire more land and/or development rights. With State funding rounds for such purposes currently open, it seems of critical importance to focus on this pursuit so that the grant opportunity does not pass us by.
- Impact Fees – as noted, the Planning Board would like the opportunity to assess the impact of a new fee structure on overall land development. Finishing the study now underway and its related ordinances should be a priority and while not labeled a specific growth control tool by the Board, impact fees could reasonably be expected to affect the pace and volume of new development proposals in Town.
- Zoning initiatives – a couple of zoning-related matters are addressed in the above discussion. The Planning Board believes there is a way to draft narrow amendments related to inclusionary zoning and housing for special populations (like senior housing) that might not require amendments to the Comprehensive Plan and asks staff to devote significant time to this effort in the coming months.