The Newport City Council is modernizing its zoning laws, as much of the current code has not been updated since the late 1970s.
A resolution calling for an update was unanimously passed at the Feb. 8 council meeting. It is part of a set of related proposals that are meant to address the city’s housing crisis.
“The overwhelming majority of homes in Newport are non-conforming with the current zoning code, because most of Newport’s neighborhoods were built prior to the existence of such codes,” Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong said. “This means that modifications to the exterior of a home often require an owner to go through the time consuming and expensive process of appearing before the Zoning Board. Housing affordability is directly tied to having an objective, predictable and efficient zoning process, which is why I am hopeful the city will work to modernize our code.”
The resolution is sponsored by Khamsyvoravong, along with councilors Lynn Ceglie, Mark Aramli, Charlie Holder and David Carlin.
Much of the issue stems from the maximum lot coverage allowed in residential zones. For example, in an R-20 zone, where lots must be a minimum 20,000 square feet, lot coverage cannot exceed 15 percent.
However, housing needs have changed since the local code was passed, and contemporary use of the home often requires larger structures. Homes are now utilized by multiple generations, people work from home and more private space is required. As such, many modern homes exceed the threshold allotted by the maximum lot coverage in residential zones, placing applicants on the Zoning Board of Review’s docket for a variance or a special-use permit.
“We’re dealing with a zoning code from 1977,” said James Houle, a local real estate appraiser. “Significant changes have occurred in the market and in what we build. Our lifestyles are completely different from what they were in 1977. We demand more from our houses now.”
Houle said the issue could be seen in the change occurring in the Chartier Circle neighborhood, where, one by one, houses are being modernized and requiring variances from the board, as well as in other parts of the city and in Middletown. He suggested tactics like sliding scales and mass ratios to address the problem.
With roughly 75 percent of all properties within R-20 zones being non-compliant, the process can be arduous. Combined with staffing issues and a pandemic that upended municipal meetings, the issue created a backlog of applications for the board.
“When you have the majority of home improvements and additions having to go through the board for a variance, you can’t keep up,” Aramli said. “We’re flooding the system with ordinary, average improvements to homes, and the system is getting clogged up. We really need to streamline and simplify the code so that no-brainer things people are trying to do can get administrative approval.”
The board now has to consider applications and petitions that would typically not require a public hearing, but rather simple approval or denial based on the zoning law, on a “case-by-case basis,” a reality that board members discussed at a meeting on Jan. 23, calling the situation “ridiculous.”
“That’s why our schedule is packed, because everybody is trying to fit a square peg into a round box,” said board member Wick Rudd.
Though the backlog has since been eliminated thanks to one of the busiest years in recent memory for the board, which hosted 19 regular meetings and eight special meetings last year, there is more work to be done.
“The Zoning Board’s rules and procedures have not been updated in decades,” board chair Samuel Goldblatt wrote in the board’s annual report to the City Council. “Consideration should be given to possible process changes to further reduce wait times, and hear and decide contested petitions quicker, while respecting the rights of applicants and objectors to be heard.”
Goldblatt called for “careful consideration” of maximum lot coverage, minimum setback relief requirements, density goals for different zones, and adoption of procedures for reviewing and approving large land developments. Other possibilities include administrative review and recommended action on minor applications, updating and digitizing the board’s application forms and clarifying and improving the board’s guidelines.
“While we can and will work on these assignments, there is only so much this board can do to improve the efficiency of the process absent changes in the zoning ordinance under which we operate,” Goldblatt said. “As this council knows, review and possible revision of the ordinance is in order.”
The city, after consulting with staff, agrees with the need to look at the local laws.
“One of the things that people love most about Newport is its history, but we certainly don’t want our zoning ordinances to be stuck in the past,” said city spokesperson Tom Shevlin. “If you look at Newport’s zoning code, what you’ll find is something very similar to what you’d expect to see in a typical suburban community. In that respect, it’s not necessarily designed for a densely populated and historic city like Newport.
“As a result, we do think that it’s important to take a look at how to modernize the code in order to first make it more reflective of where the community is now, and also to make it easier to achieve some of the goals that we have for the future.”
The resolution directs city staff to provide the council with a “workplan” and budget request for a “comprehensive review and modernization of the city’s zoning code” by June 30.