Moratorium working group talks PUD, size cap

moratorium workshop
L-R Gary Graham, Conni Harding, John Borden, Vern Gorton, Bob Gilstein, Bill Clark, Gary Crosby.

Portsmouth's ad-hoc working group on revisions to zoning ordinances met this evening to hear input from about 25 residents and discuss possible application of Planned Unit Development (PUD) regulations to large retail, as well as the contentious question of an absolute cap on store sizes. While no final answers were reached, there seemed to be an emerging consensus that some form of PUD revisions, with options for a cap at around 35-thousand square feet, would go to the next step, presentation to the Planning Board on December 5.

"Putting large scale building in PUD regulation is such a good idea, I'm shocked it took us so long," said working group member and former Town Solicitor Vern Gorton.

According to Portsmouth's web site, the existing PUD ordinance provides for phased review of long-term large scale industrial or marine trade developments, and allows some flexibility to negotiate tradeoffs with developers, but also provides a fixed set of parameters with more rigor than a special use permit.

The PUD regulations would be triggered by certain thresholds, assistant Town Planner Gary Crosby explained. Currently, buildings larger than 5K square feet require a special use permit and appearance before the zoning board. The change now, he said was that proposals of 25K sq ft and up would require the PUD process. In what sounded like a rational trade-off to make this easier on property owners with larger parcels, the planning department was also recommending allowing multiple buildings on a single lot where those had not been permitted in the past.

Conni Harding, member of the working group and one of leaders of Preserve Portsmouth brought up the elephant in the room. "We started this whole thing with the question of whether our zoning and planning can keep out a big box," she said, and asked Town Planner Bob Gilstein point blank. "Why are you anti store-size cap?"

"I'm not," Gilstein replied. "I'm just trying to set out all the options." He stressed that size cap or not, everything in the PUD proposal should apply to anything over 25k. As to the store size cap, "Part of it is a political decision, saying I don't want anything that big. It's not scientific."

For comparison, Crosby reviewed Middletown's size cap, which is 35K on paper, but, he pointed out, "does not does not prevent anyone from going to zoning board for special use. We do that for everything over 5K, so we're actually stricter than Middletown right now."

Crosby had done some analysis on retail in Portsmouth, and determined that the whole town has only 130,700 square feet, with the largest single chunk being Clements, at 30,180. Based on that, he said he was comfortable proposing a 35K square foot cap, " basing it solely on the scale of development in Portsmouth that we have now. These large structures are just wildly out of scale, and if you plugged the numbers into these page, they'd be right off the chart."

Connecting that to the proposed PUD changes, Gilstein pointed out the differences between a special use permit and a PUD. "A special use permit is permitted use but with conditions. A special use permit applicant has many more rights if denied than a PUD applicant. The Planning board can say no, and the applicant has to prove they are out of bounds. With a special use permit, the applicant just has to prove they met the requirements."

There were some good questions from the audience. Unfortunately not every speaker identified themselves, so if you know who folks are, please let me know and I'll fill in names. One resident put it quite plainly: "Part of this is public confidence. I want to see something that says no Wal-Mart is going to be able to come in. What is that nugget?"

But tonight was not about the nugget, but rather how to get there. Design Review Board chair John Borden described the process. "Our ad hoc zoning committee has been put together to advise the Town Council. We're going to submit a recommendation to the Council. Our job is to provide that data, say to Council if you're not going to do cap, here's the 20 things you need to do, and we'll also be prepared with a cap."

In addition to a cap, resident (and Charter Change leader) Sal Carceller suggested a rethinking of the local tax code. "What West Warwick does, if you're a small mom and pop, you get the residential rate, but a conglomerate gets different tax rate." In response, Portsmouth Director of Business Development Bill Clark raised concerns about penalizing businesses that are bringing tax dollars to the town.

One resident asked a tough question about the rights of landowners. "You take a person who's owned land, and complied with all the rules, and now you say that you can't do retail development. It's clear that you're saying don't bring retail — under 35k you're really saying don't bring retail. But what are you going to give these property owners? If you take away all that from those owners, what are you going to give back?"

This was not a rhetorical question, to either Jack Egan, owner of the "Target" property or Allen Shers. Said Egan, "What's lost? A conditional right to 25% ground coverage [that was worth] X dollars before the rules changed." Shers asked the audience as well as the committee. "I own 19 acres across from Melville School. I've owned it for 20 years, paid tax on it. I bought for large retail in the future. There's a certain size of development where you get economy of scale. What would you like me to use it for?" Various suggestions, from light industrial, to senior housing, to medical were offered, all of which, Shers noted, required significantly more sewer infrastructure than retail. And what, he wondered, about a large retail development that might actually be beneficial to the community? Would that be ruled out automatically because of a cap?

But the anti-big-retail folks were not swayed. "We're here tonight because of a political process," said one resident. "Target came to the boards, and citizens turned it into a political process. Now we're trying to figure out the least worst solution. It will go to the Town Council, and if there's not a cap, it will get ugly."

Another speaker echoed that same theme, "Omitting a cap is not what the majority of Portsmouth is telling you."

"That sentence," said Crosby, "will make its way into the proposal."

Bob Gilstein wrapped up by suggesting that the working group finalize a proposal with regulations that would work with or without a cap, and present a range of store size cap scenarios to the Town council. "Tell them at this number, these are the businesses you're keeping out. We will say, here are the break points. but the rest of the regulations will be set up."

Design Review Board member Gary Graham urged that "The concept of community benefit should get looked at as part of this process. There should be a way for Allen Shers' 'nice' development to occur."

And Vern Gorton questioned whether a cap was really a beneficial part of the overall solution. "I hope we're not putting in a flexible process and then taking the flexibility out."

One resident put it to the committee in the terms I think clearly reveal the framing of the coming debate: "Protect the people in Portsmouth, not the people coming in to open businesses. Protect me. Protect my property."

The next round is December 5, in front of the Planning Board.


The Ad Hoc Moratorium Working Group meeting last night was great example of the democratic process. Everybody got heard that wanted to speak. We heard both sides of thes issue from the audience (and some in between). Everyone was polite to each other. I just hope the Planning Board and Town Council meetings on the subject are as civil and as wide ranging in views. And I hope the public comes to understand the full spectrum of effects on the decisions to be made.

Our Town budget is in a bind and we need some positive revenue things to provide relief. If people think they can keep everthing as open space and not do some type of smart development of the reamaining commercially-viable parcels, they should also understand what that may mean to their tax bills in the future.

If you don't buy the property or the developement rights and don't build a commercial entitiy, your going to get houses. Houses bring the need for public services. What is the cost of a new school? If you let the traditional residential community grow without concomitant commerical development, we will surely find out some day.

I am not sure if a hard cap is good or bad. A soft cap allows for flexibility in development if someone comes in with a good "greater than 35K" plan. A hard cap prevents any special interests from manipulating the system for their own selfish benefit.

It may all come down to public trust in our elected and appointed leaders.

I do applaud everyone's diplomatic and cordial discussion of Portsmouth development at last night's meeting. However, am I the only person wondering why we still have such a tremendous budget problem with all the development that IS taking place in Portsmouth? Last year, we lost 300 acres to development, and a recent PROVIDENCE JOURNAL article mentioned that O'Neill Properties will invest 1 billion dollars in developing the west side of town. With this type of building, do we really need retail stores like Lowe's or Target to manage the books?

Let's hope that we're able to hold off those who would sell off our beautiful town to line their own pockets, not for the public good but for their private gain. We need to protect and preserve our town's charm, not sell it off for big-box development and big-business profits. I sincerely hope that the Town Council and those who will decide the fate of Portsmouth will listen to the people and put a cap on building size.

Isis asks a very good and often heard question: "why [do] we still have such a tremendous budget problem with all the development that is taking place in Portsmouth?

The answer to this question, in brief (perhaps someone smarter than me can elaborate on this) is "Paiva-Weed" a State of Rhode Island "tax cap" law that basically "level funds" the community REGARDLESS of how much increased revenues the town gets. In other words, according to this law, the only thing the town can do with increased tax revenues is decrease our citizens tax rate. This is great for homeowners, but does nothing to address unfunded needs (such as new police or fire equipment) or underfunded needs (such as buying textbooks or repaving roads). Theoretically, if O'Neill properties et al paid hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes to the town, we could lower the tax rate to virtually nothing - but we still could not increase the amount we spend on anything by more than the rate set by the state (about 4%). If anyone thinks I have misconstrued "Paiva-Weed" in any way I would welcome any clarification.

Thank you for answering my question. Although I do not understand all of the ramifications of Paiva-Weed's bill, I still cannot understand why we need big-box development in Portsmouth. Granted, we face tough economical times, but there are other ways to solve financial woes.

Won't the Melville marina area include mixed-use development? What would be the difference between that development and other commercial development in town? The changes proposed for Portsmouth's west side will change the nature of the town drastically, and I'm sure that the town will profit from the building, commercial and residential.

When I built my house in Portsmouth, I had to pay an impact fee of almost $8,000 before I could receive my occupancy certificate. This fee went toward services in the town not covered by our regular property tax. I'm sure that the town is raising money in this way from O'Neill and other builders in town, or at least I hope that they are paying their share.

I'm not against all development, but, clearly, from what we see happening across our country with massive strip mall and big-box development, big business does not care about preserving any town's charm, character, or quality of life. To think that any of us needs another Lowe's, Home Depot, Target, Stop and Shop, McDonald's, Burger King, Circuit City, or _________ (you fill in the blank) is absolutely ridiculous! All we need to do is jump in our cars and drive less than 20 minutes, and we can visit any one of these stores, if we wish.

This year, based on what I can see from PEDC estimates, the percent of Recreational-Residential Properties (most, if not all, from the O'neil development) added almost 3% to the property tax base - or around $140,000. If you use the Portsmouth EDC's numbers on return of over 50 cents on each recreational-residential tax dollar that means that, in one year, the O'neil properties put a NET of $70,000 into the Town treasury. That may not seem like much, but if you look at the valuation of just the Carnegie Tower, it is at least, 10 times that much (around $700,000 per year). That buys a lot of school books - or a couple fire trucks or more than a half dozen new police officers or firefighters -every year.

Finance is a second language for me, so I welcome correction on this. I agree completely that O'Neil is absolutely paying their share, and they have been good corporate citizens. The issue lies not with them, but with Paiva-Weed.

What S3050 does is limit the Town to increasing the total tax levied. Concrete example: Last year, the total raised was $36,525,097. That means that this year, with a 5.25% increase, we can raise $38,442,665. That number is fixed, no matter what happens to the tax base.

This year, because the tax base increased by 1.46% (and because you need to subtract motor vehicle taxes and retail from the total levied) the actual amount raised from property taxes will be $37,220,107 and the tax rate was set at $11.39/$1,000 and your bill only went up by 4.02%.

Compare that to a situation where the increase in the tax rate was capped at 5.25%, which would have brought this year's tax rate to $11.52/$1,000 and would have allowed the town to raise $37,674,701. That might not look like a big difference, but that $455K would have meant the difference between slashing support for social services, not buying new police cars, and putting money back in the depleted reserve fund.

In other words, even though this is "good," or tax-positive growth (in that recreational-residential does not have the same impacts on schools and other services) the net impact is to reduce the amount we pay in property taxes, not to actually add any money to pay for services.

While this is "good" for the taxpayer, it is really awful for the town. And this is only going to get worse and worse. Which is why projects like the Wind Turbine are so absolutely crucial.


I did not want to imply that Paiva-Weed did not hurt us in community development - it does. In fact, as anybody with any financial knowledge knows, it might, ultimately, bankrupt us. I fear the average citizen does not realize this and if they did, there would be more mail in Theresa's mail box asking tough questions.

I just wanted to make sure that people knew that O'neil is a good thing and is contributing. And, if managed properly, can be a great thing.

What we don't want is a "throw out O'neil" groundwave based on a misconception that they are not contributing.

We do need more "windmill-type" positive-revenue generators.

Agree completely -- we need to help people understand the difference between more tax-positive development like O'Neil and Yet Another Subdivision which costs more than it raises in taxes. This is even more critical under Paiva-Weed, since the net effect of adding average housing is magnified by the cap.

I hope that Berkshire Advisors will be talking with the Economic Development Committee about their projections. Understanding the fiscal landscape will be important to getting to the right answer for the schools.


Just to clarify: I did not mean to suggest that O'Neill Properties is not contributing. I only wanted to make the point that there is development taking place in Portsmouth at a tremendous rate, and it does generate money. Consequently, we don't need big boxes.

Hi, isis...
I'm not in favor of big boxes, and I agree with your conclusion, but your argument just doesn't follow. I want to reiterate my point above about the Paiva-Weed cap: development does NOT equal more dollars. The total tax that we can raise is fixed; adding new development just means more taxpayers pay.

Development does NOT automatically generate new tax revenue any more. That's the whole problem with Paiva-Weed.

Kind Regards.


Thanks for the clarification. I do get it now. In that case, there's all the more reason to discourage big boxes and more development in Portsmouth.

I don't think "don't develop" is the right answer.

Making people understand what Paiva-Weed REALLY means IS.

If we don't bring in "revenue-positive" development, all of us except the really rich will eventually be packing our bags and leaving Portsmouth either when we retire or when we run out of money to pay the taxes (and fees).

I can't even imagine our children being able to live here.

And for Big Boxes - I think it is clear that they are bad from a total net revenue and community point of view - but big, well thought out developments that return revenue to the Town and help the community? Let's think about those and not reject them with slight of hand and some arbitrary limits.

The Town Center Project is a great concept that is an alternative to the Big Box. But,

(1) It needs to be marketed so that the right developers want to invest in it. We cannot rely on a "build it and they will come" mentality.
(2) people have to adopt a "buy local" mentality to support the businesses that reside there. A local hardware store where we can "go to buy a can of paint" is a great concept, but if they only sell 2 cans of paint a day while every one else goes down the road the to Home Depot they will quickly fold up their tent.
(3) We need to answer to the question, "What is the 'anchor store' alternative (that comes with the Big Box) that will create the draw that will help the small businesses in a Town Center survive". And it can't be something that attracts only the 18,000 citizens of Portsmouth. It has to bring in $$ from people outside to make it viable.