The New Shoreham Town Council has taken the first step down the road of trying to address its town employee housing needs. The Town Council voted unanimously (5-0) at a recent work session to direct Town Manager Ed Roberge to explore the town-employee housing initiative: building a single-family residence for a senior town employee and multiple efficiency apartments in the Thomas House, while making amendments to the zoning ordinance. The ordinance needs to be amended to allow more than one kitchen to be installed within the Thomas House footprint. Councilor Sven Risom made the motion, seconded by Councilor Chris Willi.
Roberge made the recommendation to the Town Council after giving a brief presentation about the proposed plan, which included referencing design schematics on an easel. Roberge noted that as part of his research, 29 out of 50 town employees completed a survey regarding housing. “Twenty of those surveyed have housing,” said Roberge, noting that the nine who didn’t prefer to own a property versus dormitory style living. Roberge said the nine are in “short-term rental housing, but are looking for a more stable opportunity.”
Roberge said his research involved meeting with staff and various town boards, including the Housing Board.
The Town Council’s motion also directs Roberge to explore amending the zoning regulations for the 513 ordinance, or to look into a community zone comprised of the Faulkner Property, the Thomas Property, the Block Island School, and the Block Island Medical Center.
As for the Town Council’s thoughts regarding the proposal, First Warden Ken Lacoste remarked that the proposed plan reminded him of the line from the popular movie “Field of Dreams”: “If you build it they will come,” said Lacoste. “Whatever we build will be filled” with occupants.
“This is an octopus,” said Willi, who noted that he owns a residence abutting the Thomas Property. He was referring to how the Town Council has to incorporate variables in exploring the project. He also said that, “Employees leave because they can’t find housing on the island. They get tired of doing the Block Island shuffle.”
Councilor Martha Ball said, “I think it’s important to stay focused immediately on getting the (single-family dwelling) done, while looking at the zoning for the remainder of the property, and how to make that work. It’s really important to maintain momentum, while maintaining focus.”
“This is the first night that we’re talking about this,” said Second Warden André Boudreau. “I want to thank Ed and his staff for bringing us to this point.” Boudreau also thanked the community for its input. “It’s going to be an ongoing public discussion.”
After the meeting, Risom told The Block Island Times that there would be a minimum of four 700 to 800 square foot efficiency apartments for year-round rental by town employees that include a bathroom and kitchen. Town officials acknowledged during the meeting that the four efficiency apartments being constructed at the Harbor Church had an influence on their own proposal.
Risom said the plan for the Thomas Property is not permissible under the current zoning ordinance, which calls for only one kitchen in the building. He said that is why the zoning ordinance would need to be amended concurrently with the design plan.
“We heard feedback from the community at the FTM concerning the six-bedroom dormitory style building,” said Risom, noting that the information informed town officials in their approach to conceiving the new town employee-housing plan. “The town spoke. We had a community dialogue. We heard them.”
The Town Council has $1.5 million in bonding at its disposal for addressing housing needs, which was approved at the May 7 Financial Town Meeting. The bond would add $109,680 annually to the town’s debt service, and add an annual rate of $53 per million of assessed property value.
Risom said the target date for completion of the project would be next summer. Roberge must vacate his leased apartment in the Figurehead Building on Water Street in May of 2019, and the objective of the town is to provide him with housing at that time.
Despite the Town Council’s focus on building two dwellings on the Thomas Property, Risom said the “heart of the matter” is “we’re finally talking about housing, and acting on it. Like Ken (Lacoste) said at the FTM: ‘Don’t kick the can down the road.’”
Risom added: “The town trusted us with this project, and hopefully we will be doing it responsibly.”