2017-07-20 / Opinion


Time for a Master Development Plan

The developers of the former Newport Yachting Center property passed the first of many critical tests with the Newport Planning Board recently, voting its support of the project. The next step is to take the proposed mixed-use project before the Zoning Board of Review, and there is every reason to believe that many of the comments, both for and against the project, will be heard again when the Zoning Board takes up the matter.

Without taking a position either in support or in opposition, we do feel it is time for the city to consider putting into place the framework for proposed development that addresses both the desires and needs of the development community as well as those of neighbors, residents and those groups that have an interest in the city.

Newport spent a great deal of time and effort putting together an updated Comprehensive Plan, which was recently approved by the state. While that plan gives guidance in areas such as land use, economic development, housing and transportation, it offers a view from 10,000 feet. In areas such as the waterfront, we feel that everyone is better served by the city adopting a Master Plan for development that would incorporate elements of the Comprehensive Plan, but also offer prospective developers clear direction as to what can be built and what is appropriate in areas such as the historic waterfront.

A Master Development Plan would set forth a type of vision for development desired and would establish detailed design guidelines that developers would be aware of going into a project. Design guidelines would establish things such as maximum height, required setbacks, accepted uses, building materials and architectural details. Such guidelines could also include requirements like providing open/public space and, where appropriate, public access to the waterfront. By giving developers and the public a clear template of what can be built, the city would avoid the often-contentious dance marathon that occurs with each proposed development.

Many communities across the country have adopted master plans for areas within their boundaries. The benefits of establishing up front what can or can't be built creates an expedited approval process and reduces the load for planning boards, zoning boards and even in some instances the Historic District Commission. Design guidelines can also require developers to make improvements or contributions off the site such as traffic and parking improvements or even upgrades to public spaces like fountains or skating rinks. In those projects that include housing, requirements for providing a percentage of units as affordable can also be incorporated.

If a developer chose not to follow all or some of the design guidelines, then they would then have to go through a more difficult approval process like the system currently in place. We feel by having the community participate in the development and adoption of a master plan, upon completion, all sides will have had a seat at the table.

While not every idea or wish can be incorporated, at a minimum, the public will be better informed and own a piece of the plan. The outcome of having an orderly development process and an end result that benefits the community both now and in the future, is something that is long overdue.

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