Glocester among many RI towns in scramble to address state-mandated overhaul to local zoning laws

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GLOCESTER – Glocester and other towns and cities in Rhode Island are scrambling to realign their town zoning ordinances with the state mandates before the deadline of January 1, when state changes take effect. That means some zoning requests will be put on hold until those changes are formally addressed.

In  July of 2023, the General Assembly adopted a package of bills, which made changes to various aspects of zoning, planning, and permitting statutes for the purposes of standardizing and streamlining the development process, and otherwise reducing barriers to housing development. The legislation was developed based on the work of the House’s Low & Moderate Income Housing Commission, which includes legislators, housing advocates, municipal officials and developers, and has been meeting since July 2021 to help identify ways Rhode Island can meet its affordable housing needs. The bills are only the first pieces of legislation to be generated through the work of the commission, which is expected to continue its exploration of housing issues for at least another year.

“The town of Glocester, along with all Rhode Island municipalities, is required to amend their local land use regulations in response to enabling legislation that has recently been passed by the General Assembly, which provided a very short time frame for implementation,” Town Planner Karen Scott told NRI NOW.

“I guess the question is, what is going to happen between now and then, how long is that going to take?” resident Kevin Lavoie asked the Glocester Town Council at their recent meeting of when the changes go into effect locally.

Many uses allowed now, he said, won’t be allowed until the changes are addressed and officially recorded.

“We’re going to be in no man’s land here for awhile by the sounds of it,” said Lavoie.

“There will be a period of no man’s land,” agreed Town Council Vice President Stephen Arnold. “But, we have to attack each one of these individually. Everything is required; we have to do this. There’s a lot of work to be done here.”

Scott explained that when the legislation was passed, there was not enough consideration given to the amount of time it would take to address the changes in local zoning ordinances.

“When they passed the legislation, they did not provide adequate time to be able to answer effectively what the mandates were,” Scott told the council. “We are one of many municipalities across the state who are trying to put in a kind of stopgap to make sure that when these changes go into effect on January 1, there’s not some major change we didn’t anticipate.”

One major change, she said, is the requirement that any new housing developments to include affordable housing units. That would mean, for example, if ten housing units were being constructed, at least one of them would have to fall in the category of affordable housing, among other requirements.

The bills aim to streamline development, provide more complete and timely information about housing, and help municipalities meet their affordable housing goals.

The other major change is to special use permits, which have to be very strictly defined for all possibilities, potentially eliminating any special permits which are not specifically defined in ordinances. Scott explained that the Planning Board will sit down with consultants and go back to all those special use permits and make sure they are in alignment and clear in their descriptions. Zoning is divided into various residential, business, and/or industrial zones in most cases.

“We want to make sure they are conditions which will work town wide, not just in one single zone,” Scott said.

To assist Rhode Island municipalities in implementing these statutory changes, RI Housing has created a series of guidance documents and template materials to guide municipal officials as they update local land use, permitting and zoning enforceable policies including ordinances and subdivision regulations. The templates and other resources should only be used in consultation with a municipality’s solicitor to ensure that they are used appropriately within the local regulatory framework.

“In concert with consultants Weston & Sampson, the town will customize the template and guidance documents provided by Rhode Island Housing to update local land development policy to address the new state enabling legislation,” Scott later explained to NRI NOW.

There are two major categories of amendments, she said. Those include sections of state law, which must be included in the local regulatory framework as written in the enabling legislation. Some of the legislative updates include definitions, processes, procedures, and provisions that do not allow for interpretation and must be adopted into local regulations as they exist in state language, and amendments at the local level, which allow for some customization. In addition, some of the legislative amendments direct municipalities to amend their local regulations and ordinances, but do not specify exactly how those changes are to be made. For these provisions, the consultant is expected to provide best practices and examples from other communities, recommended language that the town can consider and work with staff and the Planning Board to tailor these sections to the town’s needs. 

“We will work with our consultant to draft changes that meet the new state law,” said Scott. “Many changes to the Zoning Ordinance and Subdivision Regulations are expected.”

She explained that the Planning Board has broken their approach into three phases. The first priority phase will focus on addressing the legislative changes that will have the most local impact.   

Phase one will include bills that require significant immediate local attention because there is significant tailoring necessary at the local level. Phase two will include the bills where there is little opportunity to tailor language at the local level, and where state enabling legislation language needs to be directly inserted into the local regulatory framework. Phase three will include those amendments, which are not specific to the new legislation, and are not on as tight a time frame, but will assist the town in reaching its affordable housing goals as outlined in the Comprehensive Plan.

Scott added that part of the process is all the time it takes to go through the hearings and approval required, including drafting ordinances, holding public hearings for comments, making any changes necessary as a result, and, finally, having the Planning Board and Council formally approve changes. Scott added they hope to have changes completed by March.

“This is certainly not unique to our municipality,” said Arnold.

Scott agreed, explaining that a number of municipalities were working together, sharing ideas and solutions to help streamline the process.

“We’re not starting from scratch on this,” she said. “All the municipalities are looking at this. We’re going to be able to borrow from one another.”

When asked by Al Costantino, who is in the process of constructing several buildings and walkways, including some low income housing in the Purple Cat location in Chepachet Village, if this would effect him, Scott said that permits already issued would not be effected.

Rhode Island is facing a critical shortage of housing as a result of decades of underproduction of rental housing as well as homeownership opportunities, according to the Rhode Island Housing Authority. Housing advocates say this has resulted in rapidly increasing housing costs and an extremely low inventory of available homes and apartments, putting safe and affordable housing out of reach for too many Rhode Islanders.

To help address this problem the General Assembly created the Housing Production Fund, capitalized with an initial appropriation of $25 million. Of the initial allocation, $4 million has been made available for municipal technical assistance through the Municipality Technical Assistance Program. The program is administered by RI Housing according to guidelines approved by the RI Housing Resources Commission’s Coordinating Committee and in collaboration with the Department of Housing.

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