Moratorium working group talks PUD, size cap
|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.