The following was written and contributed by Susan Taylor, Newport City Council At-Large.
Tonight the Council will be voting on a second reading of an ordinance imposing a moratorium on “decisions relating to development activity for uses requiring Development Plan Review,” only to be applied to that area outlined in the Future Land Use Map (from the Comprehensive Land Use Plan) as “Mixed-Use, Innovation.”
I am one of the cosponsors of the resolution which asked our city solicitor to come up with an ordinance that would effect a moratorium in order to allow “for the crafting of a community vision for the Innovation District and revisions to the zoning code which are needed to achieve that vision and which will provide guidance to the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Review in dealing with proposed development in that district.”
The fundamental analysis, which I think many now understand, is that our zoning ordinances are in conflict with the goals clearly stated in our Comprehensive Plan. Since both now have the force of law in our city ordinances, this creates an impossible situation for an entrepreneur wishing to develop anything, new, innovative, and complex. The Carpionato Group recognized this, and in July proposed their amendment to our zoning laws, in an effort to bring our zoning specifications into compliance with the Comprehensive Plan (“Comp Plan”). This was a necessary wake-up call!
To explain, the Comp Plan provides us with goals, such as “Goal LU-1: To provide a balanced city consisting of residential, commercial, and employment uses consistent with the character, environmental resources and vision of the community.” The zoning ordinances provide specifications for uses and dimensions (building height, setbacks, etc). To get from the goals of our Comp Plan to the specifications in the zoning ordinances is a heavy lift for most people – enter the professional planners. The City commissioned a North End Master Plan in 2006, before the realignment of the Pell Bridge ramps became a viable possibility. The City commissioned a North End Vision through the Matrix company, based in Colorado, in 2015. Then, in 2017 the City passed our Comp Plan.
In the last four years the Pell Bridge ramp realignment project has come to life. Theories about urban design which foster viable residential neighborhoods with inviting access to commercial and office/innovation facilities are evolving at a rapid pace. Newporters have expressed a greater interest in streets that are comfortable for bicycles, pedestrians, and in general a less car-centric streetscape.
The City’s Planning Department was diminished in the last several years while we focused on economic development in the north end. A year ago we had lost our Director of Civic Investment and were down to one planner, who resigned early this year. In April we hired a new planner, and only three weeks ago hired a new Director of Planning.
In September the City put out an RFP for a new North End Urban Plan, with proposals due on October 16th; the final plan is to be submitted to the Planning Board in February 2020. Far from being redundant, this document should consider and build upon the previous plans mentioned above, as shared in the RFP. The process should include expansive community input handled by professional planners.
Meanwhile, the Council has instructed the City to move forward with revisions to the zoning ordinances, which may include the Carpionato proposals, with all due haste, reporting back to the Council with progress at each Council meeting. These two efforts will run concurrently, and I hope each will inform the other.
Regarding the impact of the proposed moratorium on existing businesses and investors, the primary arguments are that it sends the wrong “message” and that it’s unnecessary. I’ve met and talked with leaders of the Chamber, and with both existing businesses in the subject area and investors seeking to establish new developments in that area. I’ve heard their concerns. My intention in sponsoring the initial resolution was to halt the approval of new developments for a period of six months (nothing prevents developers from meeting with City planning staff to refine their proposals during the moratorium).
The goal is to offer a pause in the approval of new enterprises for a period of six months while the City pays attention to good urban planning. This ultimately benefits developers who seek to invest in Newport, with the knowledge that Newport’s “brand,” or cachet, is preserved, and that Newport will remain a desirable place to live and invest.
The proposed moratorium is not an egregious move. It’s the responsible move.