PROVIDENCE — The Narragansett Town Council this week made changes to its zoning laws that some housing advocates say could thwart statewide legislation that takes effect Jan. 1.
The series of laws touted by Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi are meant to promote development in Rhode Island, streamlining the approval process for developers and homeowners. One of the new state-wide laws is a “mandatory relief directive” that would allow developers to make new construction larger and higher than what’s allowed by certain zoning ordinances.
But some town officials, including Narragansett Community Development Director Michael DeLuca, are concerned the new, state-wide laws are being “forced on towns by the General Assembly” and could “seriously impact recent strides made to reign-in the overdevelopment of residential land in Narragansett.”
To counter the law that gives developers the ability to increase the size and height of new construction, the Narragansett Town Council this week voted 4 to 1 to change the town’s zoning rules, allowing the town to reduce every dimensional measurement of structures proposed for new development. It’s how the town is offsetting the state’s mandatory relief directive, said DeLuca during the nearly three-hour hearing where he presented the proposal. The town would still need to pass the ordinance after a second reading, during which no changes to the ordinance are allowed.
DeLuca said that this “has been issue number one” for the planning department since the state-wide bills passed in June.
In an interview on Wednesday, Shekarchi said Narragansett already has “some of the most cumbersome zoning regulations” in the state, and that the new ordinance would “clearly be a direct conflict with state law.”
“I’m very disappointed to say the least. This isn’t negligence. This is a deliberate contradiction to the law,” said Shekarchi. He warned that the town was potentially “opening itself up to legal issues.”
“These pieces of legislation have been proposed, talked about. We were very open, collaborative, and transparent,” Shekarchi said of the state-wide laws. “Not once did Narragansett come forward with an idea, suggestion, or rejection. And now they want to change the spirit of the law.”
If the ordinance passes, some lots in Narragansett that currently conform to zoning laws could suddenly be non-conforming, according to Patrick Doughtery, an attorney based in Narragansett. If a homeowner wants to build a deck on their property, or an addition so an elderly grandparent could move in, they could face “additional problems,” he said.
“This is a complete knee jerk overreaction to the law by an out of control Department of Community Development, Planning [Department], and Planning Board who are trying to maintain their grips on the control of the town. This impact of this is going to be catastrophic to all the owners of existing lots,” said Doughtery, who has also represented some developers. “Whoever thought this up was not thinking of the impact on the average mom and pop in Narragansett. This is going to hurt so many people.”
Standard home heights across the state, including in Narragansett, are about 35 feet high. But Narragansett’s new ordinance would decrease the allowed height to 30 feet. Accessory structures, like a separate garage or shed, are being reduced from 18 feet tall to 16 feet.
“You can’t build a multi-story structure at 30 feet because you won’t have adequate room for ceilings that are up to code,” said Doughtery.
Dougherty said he’s faced “extreme opposition” by the town when bringing proposals to the planning board and office of community development in the past. In one case, a 20-unit housing project with five affordable-housing units on Boston Neck Road was denied by the town; the State Housing Appeals Board overturned the decision in early November. He said the ordinance approved on Monday will force people to spend time and money to hire surveyors, attorneys, and others to go before zoning boards.
When asked if these dimensional changes would impact the approval process for projects, DeLuca on Monday said, “I won’t say it doesn’t slow the process.”
Tom E. Deller, a town planner in Johnston who recently retired as the town planner in Central Falls, said he does “not know what Narragansett is hoping to achieve in this.”
“Circumventing state laws that are trying to help address the housing crisis right before they take effect... It’s like the Wild West,” said Deller.
Narragansett Town Councilwoman Susan Cicilline-Buonanno was the only member of the council to vote against accepting the ordinance. During the hearing on Monday, she asked if the proposed changes could put the town in legal jeopardy. A Narragansett solicitor replied that the town is “allowed to regulate dimensional standards.”
Narragansett planning board chair Terence Fleming pushed back against the idea that Narragansett was trying to limit development in town, and said on Monday that the “planning board has been very supportive of affordable housing.” He estimated the board has “approved half” and “rejected half” of the housing proposals brought to the board for approval.
Only about 3.8 percent of Narragansett’s housing stock is considered affordable, despite a nearly 30-year-old law requiring the town to have 10 percent of its stock be affordable, according to the 2023 Housing Fact Book by HousingWorks R.I. In 2022, the median single family home price in the town was $760,000, which 51 percent higher than the median home price in 2017.
Town leaders acknowledged Narragansett’s housing crisis during Monday’s hearing. Council President Ewa Dzwierzynski said some of the changes to the town’s zoning law would help build affordable housing “because the bigger the houses, the less affordable.”
But Shekarchi said the town is trying to make changes for “all home sizes, including small ones.”
Narragansett has been criticized for denying major housing project proposals in recent years, and some housing advocates say the latest ordinance is one more way in which the town is making it more difficult to build.
“We are being much too restrictive,” said Nicholas Edwards, a town resident and chair of the local of the Affordable Housing Charitable Trust. “We should be opening our arms and making it easier... I can assure you that people are not lining up to build affordable housing homes in the town of Narragansett.”