Council enacts 6-month moratorium on large-scale retail

Canario and Crosby
Dennis Canario presides as Gary Crosby reads the moratorium.

The Portsmouth Town Council this evening heard vigorous pro and con discussion on a six-month moratorium on retail buildings larger than 55,000 square feet, eventually voting unanimously to implement the cap. The only major change to the language proposed by the Town Planning department was setting a fixed end date. rather than allowing any potential extension. Nearly 80 people endured the three-hour session in the sweltering Middle School auditorium, and fully a quarter of them took their turn at the mike.

Assistant Town Planner Gary Crosby led the group through the proposed language, which, he stressed, was not intended "to morph into a store size cap," but rather, provide space for a thoughtful review to take place. "Think of the town review procedures as Louie Escobar's Corn Maze," said Crosby. The maze, or process, is designed to be sufficiently challenging but successful applicants can navigate it and exit with a permit. "This moratorium," he said, "Is a sign over the entrance saying closed for repair. But we put in a door that's maybe 4.5 feet high. If you're short enough to go through the opening you can go in and have fun," but, he stressed, "you still have to go through the maze."

At the end of the process, said Crosby, at least three things could happen: the Town might decide existing permitting procedures were sufficient and remove the "door," they could leave the leave the restriction in place after determining that "we could not make the maxe sufficiently challenging to let full size people to go through," or they might even create a new entry to a "more challenging part of the maze."

To facilitate the decision-making process and to gather maximum input from everyone, the Planning Department will hold a "charette," an evening of intensive, small-group discussion, August 23rd at the Portsmouth Senior Center. In addition, Crosby proposed creating an ad-hoc working group of stakeholders and citizens to wargame a Target-like application through the entire zoning process, to assess the robustness of existing regulations and discover any weaknesses. The important thing, he stressed, was to do this expeditiously.

Town Council President Dennis Canario opened the meeting for citizen comment, and especially given the sensitive nature of the subject, the remarks from the floor were orderly and respectful — with one notable exception. The Portsmouth Economic Development Committee's (EDC) Roger Moriarty accused "organized agitators" of putting the moratorium together "on the back of an envelope." That certainly didn't make it any easier for EDC chair Rich Talipsky to present the group's official position [see comments for full text], a more moderate note of caution about "sending a significant negative tone" to potential developers and avoiding over-reliance on "a specific limit like size" rather than treating applications on the merits.

The two main prongs stressed by anti-moratorium folks — and they were plentiful and eloquent — were fairness to all taxpayers and belief that the maze is sufficiently difficult. It was argued that groups we have monitoring the process (Zoning Board, Design Review Board (DRB), etc.) have the tools they need. Bill Clark, Director of Economic Development said, "This not a rubber stamp activity. A special permit is required for ANY building over 5K square feet, even allowed use in appropriate zone." He contrasted this with many other towns, where, "If it is an allowed use and no variances, they can be ready to build in short order." The risk, he said, was not so much Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) as "BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Near Anything."

"There are in place adequate boards and committees to protect all citizens," said Allen Shers, a member of both the EDC and the DRB. Further, he said, "One charge of the Town Council is the protection of the inherent rights of all its citizens, and ensuring that all citizens are treated equally."

Vernon Gorton
Vern Gorton addresses Council.

"If you're one of the kids that can't get into the maze, you're going to be pretty ticked off," noted State Senator Chuck Levesque. And attorney Vern Gorton, representing the Marshall Properties, picked up that same theme, "I go to the corn maze with my kids and pay Louie the money and he grabs the last kid and says you can't go in. If he asks why — he's the same age, same grade, he's better behaved — there's no reason, it's just an arbitrary rule. We all have to agree this is inherently unfair. It's such a drastic measure, and we have the regulatory scheme in place."

Former Council candidate Mark Katzman acknowledged the concerns, but urged caution: "We have an exhastive book of rules and regs," he agreed, "But our system has never been tested. And you don't get a redo. Once they build a Target, it's there." DRB Chair John Borden seemed to concur, "Yes we probably could have gotten through Target okay. But there are things that need tweaking. We don't have a section of our guidelines for big boxes."

There was general consensus, even among those supporting the moratorium, that moving quickly was important — and there were folks ready to help. Teresa Crean of Aquidneck Island Planning Commission and Peter Roos of the Newport Restoration Foundation offered the support of their organizations for the process, as did Vern Gorton on behalf of the developers he represents. Conni Harding of Preserve Portsmouth said, "We're not BANANAs," and talked about bringing Stacy Mitchell of www.newrules.org to town on September 13 to help inform the discussion.

The Council was clearly in favor of the moratorium. Said Len Katzman, "Let's convince ourselves as a community that we have the systems in place. We need the freedom of a little bit of breathing space. Property owners have rights, I respect that, but those rights, like every other right we have must be balnced against the rights of others."

I don't often agree with Pete McIntyre, but he was spot on tonight, supporting the moratorium but raising this same point. "If I owned 16 acres and paid tax on it since 1967, as long as I keep within the rules and regs I should be allowed to build."

For Jim Seveney, the issue was risk: "We can't afford to make a mistake with this. When you're not quite sure, it's good time to stop and think." But he was firm that he would not vote for any language allowing extensions. "Six months and that's it, so all the property owners have a defined time horizon."

Tailgunner Gleason wasn't happy with the time limit, "I don't want to be rushed," she said, "I don't want anything to intimidate or pressure me." Then she wandered completely off book: "We have adequate boards," she admitted, "But at some of these meetings, amendments have been made. We have rules and guidelines. We need to be very careful to follow what it is on paper and not to make exceptions for special interest groups or developers." See why I love having Tailgunner around? I can always depend on her for an unsubstantiated accusation like that. Like her statement earlier in the meeting that "We could have 200 buildings at 55k square feet." Show me where, in Portsmouth, those mythical 200 buildings are possible, because I'm looking at the map and I'm not seeing it. But I digress.

Katzman proposed and Seveney seconded a version of the moratorium striking the language for a 5-month extension, and this passed unanimously.

I agree with those who urge quick action, and not just for the sake of fairness to property owners. We went from 200 people at the June 11 meeting to only 80 tonight, a number that could have fit comfortably in Town Hall. Once you take away the bogeyman of Target, I have real concerns about maintaining critical mass. August 23 can't come soon enough.

Comments

It is so clear that this is just a shameless conspiracy to give Escobar free advertising for his corn maze. It is no coincidence that corn maze season is just around the corner, and apparently that's all anyone talked about last night. I thought they were there to figure out the moratorium, not promote a single citizen's attempts to cash in on the controversy.

[Sorry, I had been missing some of the similar "it's all a conspiracy" posts of late, so I had to generate one of my own.]

Once again, thank you for covering town events so extensively - I get only a fraction of this info from our local MSM.

English

Hi, English...
Glad you find the coverage useful. I think Gina Macris in the ProJo does a great job (read last night's story) and I always read her stuff (but I never cheat and look at hers before I post, though she almost always beats me online.)

About Escobar, you need to step back and look at the big picture; the maze is just a bagatelle. It's really all about the corn. I mean, have you ever noticed how many things are made with corn? It's in everything. Ask ADM.

And when did our economy veer so dramatically toward corn? 1985, the pinnacle of the Reagan Administration. You don't think Poppy Bush and his pals at the Trilateral Commission were involved? And the price of oil? HAH. The price of corn DOUBLED this year, raising prices of everything along its value chain, from chocolate to steak. You don't think there's corn in your taco? Look for High Fructose Corn Syrup, HFCS, my friend.

Do you believe that Orville Redenbacher really just had a heart attack and drowned in his jacuzzi? What do you think is really behind the collapse of the subprime mortgage market?

The truth is out there.

Cheers.
-j

The views experssed by Roger Moriarty (a PEDC Member) at last night's meeting do not represent the official views of the PEDC. If he idetified himself as a PEDC member at last night's meeting without stating that his comments were his personal views, he was wrong.

The PEDC encourages ALL points of citizen views on economic matters. I, as chair, believe that the people who voiced opposition to the Target proposal were exercising their duties as citizens of Portsmouth - not as 'rabble rousers', but as concerned citizens. The PEDC values thier opinions. The PEDC prides intself at being a committee that presents balanced and complete reports and recommendations on economic issues.

The position of the PEDC on the Moratorium, in summary, is as follows (our complete statement from last night is provided below):

1) the Moratorium places the Town in 'business development limbo' with ALL prospective businesses using a 'wait and see" perspective on investing in Portsmouth.
2) The Moratorium should be adjudicated as expeditiously as possible to lift this "monkey" off the Town's back.
3) We believe the design and planning review processes of the Town are sound and (assuming they have "teeth") should be able to maintain our 'smart growth' initiatives.
4) If the Town does not embrace commercial growth, and assuming Town budgets rise in the future, the price our citizens pay out of their pockets for the priviledge of living in Portsmouth (be it in property taxes or fees) will rise significantly.

Also, to allay any fears of 'cronyism' within the Town's boards and committees, a system of checks and balances are required to ensure that the decisons of these bodies are in consonance with the overall needs of the Town and any attempt at 'midnight- back room' decisions have the proper review before implmentation.
---------------------------------
Statement of PEDC Chair, Rich Talipsky concerning the moratorium.

August 1, 2007

Comments on the Restrictions on Commercial Development

The purpose of this statement is to provide some thoughts from the Portsmouth Economic Development Committee (PEDC) concerning the recent initiatives to limit the size of commercial developments in Portsmouth.

As the PEDC has reported for the past six years, the percent contribution of commercial development to the property tax revenue base has been declining for nearly two decades. As we have also shown, commercial development is a strong contributor to the Town’s revenue stream when compared to residential development. Judicious commercial development is essential to the Town’s economic well-being. There are a small number of large commercial parcels left in Portsmouth that must be carefully managed to achieve the best revenue potential.

Use of available property in the Town can result in three outcomes.

(1) retain as open space,
(2) develop commercially,
(3) develop residentially

In comparing the economic value of these prime development properties, the best revenue driver is commercial development. Many statistics point to a commercial development using less that 30 cents of every tax dollar they pay in services. On the other hand traditional residential development uses about a dollar sixteen cents in services for every property tax dollar they pay.
The other option, open space, is not so easy to quantify. Since the commercial parcels under discussion are not geographically located where an outside party, such as the Aquidneck Land Trust would invest in them, the Town would have to buy the properties or development rights to ensure that the land remained open space. Development rights prices vary widely because they are based on the seller and have ranged from 20% to 80% of the assessed value. Those sold at low prices also command revenue concessions, such as tax relief. So, for open space, even though statistics say that open space uses about 40 cents in services of each tax dollar they pay, the initial Town investment to buy the development rights creates a negative revenue until the bond ispaid off and then, most likely, commands a lower tax rate after that. Depending on particular details of the rights agreement, the development of the land by the Town is not, necessarily, guaranteed, since the land will gain value and could be developed by the Town for short-sighted economic gain in the future.

There are many economic factors involved in the revenue value of a commercial parcel, so focusing on any single measure can be very misleading.

Beyond a strict “dollars and cents” analysis, there are many other factors to be considered that cannot be precisely quantified in dollars to the Town. These include things such as job creation, the effects on traffic and safely, the generation of supporting business opportunities for new businesses and how a new development might add or detract from existing businesses. Other effects would be how the development would affect the quality of life and the New England character of the Town.

We offer the following observations:

(1) Any moratorium or ‘blanket’ restriction on commercial development for any single measure will have an overall negative affect on the ‘business friendly’ atmosphere of the Town. This business-friendly, ‘every business counts’ atmosphere attracts high value, high tech, community friendly businesses. Changing the philosophy of the Town to an ‘every business counts, except some….” philosophy sends a significantly negative tone to not only large developers but those smaller business developers who are worried about how their businesses might be negatively affected in a Town that embraces blanket rules against commercial growth.

(2) Each development must be treated separately, regardless of size or any other single measure, as to its merits and drawbacks. These attributes include both revenue and community value. Eliminating certain commercial developments by any single measure (like size) may dissuade some potentially significant, community-friendly developers from investing because they are skeptical about what the Town will do next to limit businesses.

(3) Limiting commercial development strictly by size may, de facto, create an avenue for a series of small “strip malls” on these large parcels along East and West Main Road that may have a more negative affect on the town than any single large properly managed development.

(4) Maintaining a strong and legally-defensible set of planning and design review guidelines is the most effective way of maintain out Town’s character while continuing our motto of “every business counts” and continuing a strong and intelligent commercial development philosophy.

In conclusion: Commercial establishments are exceptionally important to the Town’s economic well being. As the commercial percentage of the tax base continues to decline, and the Town budget does not, the amount our residents pay for the privilege of living here (be it in property taxes or fees) will increase. It is absolutely essential to our economic well-being that we maintain a highly positive attitude toward commercial development. Rather than posing any specific limit (e.g., size) of any development we should insure that we have comprehensive statutes and permitting requirements in place that provide definitive guidelines for development and enforce the specific recommendations of our Town development review and approval bodies for each specific development. Each development must be treated individually on all merits. The positive aspects of any commercial development, particularly the use of the large commercial parcels remaining in town, must be weighed against the negative aspects posed by the proposed commercial developments on those parcels, regardless of size or any other single attribute. Any development comes with both positives and negatives and trying to apply blanket rules (like setting a square footage limit on building size) defeats the very premise of having strong planning and design review boards.

The moratorium on building size has placed the Town in a business development “limbo”. Few businesses will consider developing in Portsmouth while the issue remains unresolved. As a result of its indecision, the Town lost what may have been a very accommodating business tenant as the design proceeded through the design and planning process. The Portsmouth EDC recommends that the debate on this moratorium be expeditious and be used to ensure that necessary checks and balances are in place to allow the Design Review and Planning Boards to do their job in meeting the Town’s goals for smart growth and not constrain development based on any single arbitrary parameter.

Richard Talipsky
Chair, Portsmouth Economic Development Committee

Hi, Rich...
Thanks for this important clarification. I don't think Roger identified himself as a member of the PEDC, but as a member, it might have been clearer if he had specifically disclaimed his remarks. Everyone has a right to speak their mind as a citizen, and I'm sure that's all he intended. My comment was more about how would have appeared to someone who recognized him from his official role.

Appreciate your providing the full EDC statement, and I've linked to it in the main post.

Best regards.
-j

I agree with a lot of the EDC statement. Actually, all of it. The group has my greatest respect and I'm grateful that Portsmouth has a group of dedicated professionals who are willing to volunteer their time to provide an economic development perspective on this and other important issues. I can find nothing in the above statement that I think is wrong.

But I focus on this little bit of the statement where it says, "Beyond a strict “dollars and cents” analysis, there are many other factors to be considered that cannot be precisely quantified in dollars to the Town. These include things such as ... the quality of life and the New England character of the Town."

Boy does that say a mouthful! Ever live near a town that has a paper mill? I can assure you the dollars and cents analysis is irrelevant when you're smelling sulfur fumes all day. I've also lived near a shellfish processing plant. That made the sulfur fumes seem like perfume. Remember the old "combat zone" in Boston? Imagine those kind of businesses coming here.

The point is that not every commercial development is wanted. That's the honest truth, even though we are an "every business counts" community. Economic analysis is important, but it is not the only thing that is important. There is a quality of life analysis that must be factored into the mix along with the dollars and cents analysis.

That's why I support the moratorium and the process that will take place for Portsmouth to refine it's laws to ensure we will preserve our quality of life.

So thanks, PEDC Chair and thanks to all of the PEDC members who helped draft the statement. You are to be especially congratulated for having the fortitude to present the PEDC position even though it is likely not very popular. You have my deepest respect. I hope that you will also respect the opinions of those of us who do not view everything through an economic lens.

Amount of information imparted to the public about the moritorum meeting:
1) This Blog: A lengthy, detailed report.
2) The Providence Journal: A brief and adequate if not detailed summary
4) Today's Newport Daily News: NOTHING. Zip. Nada. Zero.

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