As Newport looks to reshape its zoning laws, the City Council interviewed Samuel Goldblatt on Feb. 15 for reappointment as chair to the Zoning Board of Review.
Goldblatt’s five-year term recently expired. A motion to reappoint him for another five years is on the council’s Feb. 22 docket. The council also interviewed Board of Tax Appeals member Paul Tobak, and two applicants for the Historic District Commission.
The council was set to vote on the reappointments of Goldblatt and Tobak on Feb. 22, although there was no appointment to the HDC listed on the council’s agenda for that meeting.
During the interviews with the applicants for the HDC, councilors asked about the balance between historic preservation and homeowner needs, the replacement of historic windows and doors, applicant backgrounds and interest in joining the commission.
Another round of HDC interviews was scheduled for the same night before the council meeting. There is currently one vacancy on the commission, as chair Andy Bjork’s term recently expired.
The interviews come as the City Council carries out an overhaul of the HDC and the historic district laws, which, in combination with revisions to the zoning code and other measures, is intended to make local housing more affordable and accessible.
At a Feb. 8 meeting, the council unanimously passed a resolution to update its zoning code, which has undergone minimal revision since it debuted in 1977.
“There’s discretion in the zoning code, but there’s no real parameters,” Goldblatt said. “One of the things we see is where there are attorneys or experts involved, they come in with all kinds of data, and one of the things we’ve discussed is whether [the board] could access that data in advance and try to collectively understand what’s happening. But that data just isn’t readily available.”
Goldblatt said the board does not have the ability to conduct its own stormwater studies and is only provided testimony from expert witnesses often hired by the applicant. The petition of Salve Regina University to construct two dormitories in Ochre Point was an example, with many witnesses and attorneys going back and forth. Goldblatt said the application, which took about four years to decide, was “challenging” to the board’s schedule and compared the process to a lengthy trial.
Despite the zoning code being outdated, Goldblatt said he has “never held his nose” at a board decision, even though tension between public desires and what the zoning code allows for frequently occurs. He said the board is functioning well and enjoys a strong working relationship among membership.
In response to a question about expediency from Councilor Charlie Holder, Goldblatt said the board is now working with city staff to speed up the process, including introducing strategies like time limits for public hearings, new petitions being previewed and organized by staff, updating board rules and procedures, and making forms clearer and more accessible.
Goldblatt hopes other measures can be adopted, including publishing a list of frequently asked questions about the zoning process to the city website.
Councilor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano asked what the council could do to make the board’s job easier. Goldblatt, who has enthusiastically supported an update to the zoning code, said non-conforming lots need to be addressed. Because of contemporary home needs, such as more private space and many employees working from home, homes need to be bigger than they were nearly 50 years ago, a reality that clashes with the lot coverage allowed in the code for residential zones, he said.
The process now requires the homeowner to appear before the Zoning Board and prove a “hardship” that allows the board to grant a special-use permit and variance to exceed the lot coverage, a time-consuming practice that results in the board taking many applications on a case-by-case basis.
“I think people can get very frustrated when they see someone down the street doing or having done the same things they want to do, but can’t,” he said.
Councilor David Carlin asked why the board could not simply point to the zoning code for such applications requesting lot coverage variances and deny them based on the current laws. Goldblatt said the public has a right to petition the board for relief per state law.
“We cannot blanket turn down requests,” he said. “The Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled that each case must be determined on its own merits and its own facts.”
Tobak said the Board of Tax Appeals is functioning well, but with only three members, some weak spots exist, such as commercial development. He said he would welcome an additional member to the board with specific expertise, although expanding the membership would require a change to the city charter.
Last year, the ad hoc commission tasked with studying the charter and proposing changes for City Council approval recommended striking the residency requirement from the board, which has struggled to find membership. After concerns were raised, the council failed to pass the recommendation in a 3-3 vote.
Tobak said the last property revaluations in 2020 were skewed because of the pandemic, and he feared drastic increases in the upcoming round this year.