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Under pressure to meet Jan. 1 deadline, town planners had a very stressful 2023

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Under pressure to meet Jan. 1 deadline, town planners had a very stressful 2023

Dec 27, 2023 | 5:00 am ET
By Christopher Shea
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Under pressure to meet Jan. 1 deadline, town planners had a very stressful 2023
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Aerial view of Warwick taken in spring 2023 shows residential development between Route 95 running vertically at far left and Greenwich Avenue on the far right. (Rhode Island Geographic Information System)

Since last summer, Warwick Planning Director Tom Kravitz has been racing against the clock. That’s why on a recent day he locked himself in an empty office with his laptop and numerous plat maps.

“I spent four of five days, six hours in a row, really plowing through it,” he said.

“It” is the work required to overhaul the city’s municipal code, something Kravitz and his staff of seven have had to do on top of their normal workload in order to comply with state-mandated changes to the city’s zoning, planning, and permitting statutes.

The changes are required by the 13 bills passed by the General Assembly back in June to stimulate the production of more affordable housing across Rhode Island. Among the changes are provisions allowing commercial buildings to be converted to residential use, shortening the review process for plans, and shifting approval power away from local boards to their municipal planners. 

The legislation was hailed as an important step in helping remove bureaucratic hurdles that slow down development in cities and towns in order to address the state’s housing crisis. But it has placed pressure on Rhode Island’s municipal planners, who have to prepare their communities to adopt these changes by Jan. 1.

Kravitz has most of his city’s new zoning rules set. But he said the city will likely need an extra month or two to update ordinances for subdivisions and land development projects.

These are changes many planners didn’t ask for and don’t want — especially the power shift from locally-appointed planning boards to these full-time planners who prefer to work in more of an advisory role.

“This was all thrown at the towns,” said Jane Weidman, the town planner of Charlestown who only has one assistant to help address the planning needs of a 36.5 square mile town of about 8,000 people. “It’s a real pain.”

Burrillville Town Planner Ray Goff said his new responsibilities have been an adjustment. Normally, he said he prefers to stay out of the limelight and focus on how Burrillville can develop — a sentiment many planners have in their respective municipalities. “I like to collaborate,” he added.

Under pressure to meet Jan. 1 deadline, town planners had a very stressful 2023
A group of municipal and state planners meet for a roundtable discussion at the Warwick Public Library on the afternoon of Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, about zoning code updates required to come into compliance with state law. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

‘We need an extension’

Frustrations were front and center when over 20 municipal and state planners met on Dec. 1 at the Warwick Public Library for a roundtable discussion on how they were doing with just one month left before the state’s deadline.

The discussion included preliminary results from a survey by the state chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) consisting of 29 responses from town planners/offices across the state.

Results, which were taken between Nov. 27 and 30, found that only 30% of municipalities had finished their zoning changes. Because of this, former APA Rhode Island Chapter President Jeff Davis said the association plans to ask the state to extend the deadline so towns don’t have to rush.

“We need an extension — even if it’s just six months,” said Davis, a project planner for Providence-based Horsley Witten Group, Inc. and former principal planner for the Rhode Island Division of Planning.

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, who spearheaded the housing legislation, said in a statement he’s open to talking with municipal leaders about giving them more time, but he doesn’t “want to give them more time if they want to attempt to circumvent the laws we have enacted.”

We have a housing crisis, and the six-month deadlines were established to give municipalities ample time to prepare,” he said.

Providence, the largest city in Rhode Island, announced passing all of its ordinances on Dec. 8.

“Through these amendments, Providence will be better positioned to build more housing options at every price point,” Mayor Brett Smiley said in the announcement.

Weidman said she’s not surprised that Providence got its changes done ahead of the state’s deadline, considering the capital city has 35 people working for its planning department.

Smaller municipalities like Charlestown, and its two-person planning office, don’t have that luxury. Exeter has a part-time planner. The town of Johnston promoted its part-time planner to a full-time position earlier this year, but the position has additional responsibility overseeing public works. Tiverton, meanwhile, has been without a full time planner for a year and a half

The median annual salary of an urban and regional planner, who typically require a master’s degree, was about $80,000 in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Statewide, the average salary is about $90,000, based on a 2022 survey by the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns.

Towns with fewer resources could hire consultants to help, but Weidman said there simply are not enough around.

“There are only a handful who are doing this work,” she said.

Goff was one the lucky few to get a consultant — former APA President Davis — to get the northwest Rhode Island town’s changes done.

“He really did the yeoman’s work,” Goff said in an interview.

The zoning changes, Goff said, were also approved with very little debate from people in Burrillville — unlike a potential change to town law governing who can keep chickens.

“That’s stirred up more Facebook fodder than any of this legislation stuff,” he said.

Major vs. minor 

One of the laws passed amends the definition of what’s considered a “major” land development project or a “minor” one in order to expedite the approval process for new housing.

Minor subdivisions can now consist of up to nine buildable lots — up from five, Weidman said. Projects, by law, can include commercial and industrial buildings up to 7,500 square feet in size, multi-family residential or residential condominium, and mixed-use development consisting of up to six dwelling units and 2,500 gross square feet of commercial space.

“Why is a 7,500 square foot project considered minor for a place like Charlestown or Block Island?” Weidman said.

Minor projects only require two phases of review (down from three) and do not require approval in a public meeting. That power is instead shifted to a local administrator — usually a municipal planner.

Major subdivisions are now 10 or more lots. Projects in this category are any that exceed the threshold to be considered minor and require three phases of review, which remains unchanged from the previous definition.

This was all thrown at the towns. It’s a real pain.

– Jane Weidman, Charlestown town planner

Review stages can be condensed by a town planner, but public hearings are still required with final approval from the planning board.

Weidman said she understands the state’s need to encourage more development, but questioned why lawmakers changed the definitions for major and minor projects. 

“That dividing line needs to go back,” she said. “It needs to be brought back into a realistic range for rural and suburban towns.”

Special permits

Another logistical hurdle is for municipalities to nail down specific criteria to get a special use permit (also known as a comprehensive permit), which authorizes developments in places they aren’t zoned for or where they might cause issues.

One example Goff likes to use is a high-traffic business proposed for an already busy street.

“They’re to deal with nuisance type opportunities,” he said. “A lot of planners will make something a special use permit so the planning and zoning board can have a discussion about what the use is and how it could potentially impact neighbors.”

But if municipalities don’t have specific definitions, anyone who applies for special use development will automatically be granted a permit. It’s made planners like Goff review each and every permit to come up with necessary requirements.

“And we have a few hundred,” Goff said.

Weidman said Charlestown still needs to review definitions for crematoriums and nursing homes among other types of projects but has left them out of the new ordinances for the time being in order to finalize the rest of the changes. She said she does not anticipate such projects in the near future but will be able to tackle drafting new language in the new year.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the town of Johnston has a part-time planner.