Rebuttal to follow in a day or so....

P.O. Box 984
Block Island RI 02807

February 22, 2005

Gerald Pierce
Block Island Economic Development
PO Box 619
Block Island RI 02807

Dear Gerry:

I am writing to make suggestions about the West Side Road project. My original concerns focused on the environmental impact. Since learning more about the project, I now have grave concerns about the impact on affordable housing, the impact on the owner-residents, and the impact on the community’s affordable housing needs in the future.

This is one of the three largest single building developments in the Island’s entire history. This project involves the town’s resources and public funding. Many of our decisions will be irrevocable. We have to get it right and come up with a plant that a wide consensus of the community supports. My interest, since I first heard about the project, has been to make it one that truly meets our needs, serves the needs of the future owners of the units, and respects the natural environment that each of us here is fortunate to experience.

In that spirit, I make the following suggestions:

1. This site has a steep ravine that the proposed plan seems to make no allowances for. It would be unwise - and incompatible with the values of Block Island – to alter, remove, or flatten the natural contours of the land.

2. This can be done by clustering some of the units and combining four to eight of them into single buildings. This will provide variety in the neighborhood and allow more open space – for recreation, gardening, and a sense of living in sync with the natural environment.

3. With such topography and for other reasons, it is not wise or necessary that every house have a basement.

4. Combining some of the units in one or two buildings allows for some occupants to save on heating costs. It will save on installation of sewer, water, and utilities, making the units more affordable. It will increase the size of yards for owners who want and need them. It will increase the number of residents with great views. As currently planned, the project has 70 percent or more of the homeowners looking at other houses from their windows, not at the Island’s natural beauty. Imaginative siting of the units can take care of this and save money as well.

5. Having all units of identical sizes is not in the interests of the future occupants nor does it help meet the housing needs of the Island to the maximum extent possible. A person living alone may not need two bedrooms, a second floor, and a basement for many years into the future, if ever. Yet to live in the proposed neighborhood, middle-income buyers would have no choice but to buy a two-bedroom unit. It is true that the basements and second floors would be unfinished, but the owners would have heating costs for that unused space. Their mortgage payments would reflect the additional construction costs. And what of buyers who expand their families and need three or four bedrooms? There is no place for them to move. And what of middle-aged couples with children who want to downsize when the children leave home? They will either have to stay in the same two-bedroom residence where they are or move off the Island.

6. By the same token, the lot sizes should not be uniform, but varied according to the unit sizes, to the topography of the land, and to wise planning. Some residents will want a traditional yard, but others will prefer a small plot because they will save on the purchase price and save the time and expense on yard maintenance. If everyone’s lot size is the same, no one’s needs will be met. If every lot size is the same, it is impossible to build within the contours of the land.

7. Clustering and combining some units will open up a significant amount of communal space. This will give young children space to play without having to cross West Side Road to the playground or to be driven elsewhere. It may also allow enough open space so that middle-school children and young teens to play ball or other games in their own neighborhood. It will allow all the children to grow up surrounded by the natural environment, as Island kids have for decades. If we make our single largest housing neighborhood one where this is not possible, we may lose the distinctive Island ethic of appreciation for the natural surroundings. The idea of same-sized lots for everyone is a suburban model, not an Island model. Knowledgeable planners have said that individual front lawns are the most wasted and unused space in America. On an island we obviously have limited space.

8. It’s important that affordable housing have opportunities for owners to downsize or upgrade. But the project as planned does not allow for that. That means that there will be a minimal amount of mobility in the neighborhood. There will be little turnover. Occupants will be locked in, and when we need to locate middle-income school teachers, medical workers, hospitality employees, or town employees in the future, the West Side Road project will have provided us no vacancies at all.

9. One of our most pressing affordable-housing needs is units for new school teachers, police officers, and health center employees who are single or childless and need housing for a couple of years until they decide whether they like living and working here. There are no units for those persons in the current plan.

10. In fact, as I understand the current qualification requirements, the newcomers would not even qualify for the ownership units. That means that we cannot use this new development of 20 affordable ownership units as a recruiting tool for the positions that we need to fill shortly.

11. Our second most pressing need is rental units for short-term employees who come to the Island. There are no units for these persons in the current plan. Substituting three to six rental units of varying sizes, in place of some ownership units, would meet this need and allow prospective buyers to become part of the neighborhood while they wait for an ownership residence to come on the market. It would allow flexibility for owners whose family situations change because of divorce or death or other factors. Management of rental units may be a challenge, but there are creative solutions: One would be to have the owner of one unit act as a rental manager (and thereby offset monthly mortgage payments). Another would be to combine rental management of the Searles Ball and West Side Road developments. A third would be to contract rental management to the Block Island Housing Board. Still a fourth is to contract it to the Women’s Development Corp.

12. The steep grade of the roads in the proposed plan may not meet town specifications. At any rate, it raises risks. And it raises construction and maintenance costs. It would be a shame if the homeowners association of this new neighborhood is saddled immediately with large expenses because of a road washout.

13. It is hard to see that emergency equipment can pass through the inclines currently proposed. Reconfiguring the units will eliminate this risk. The fire department should be asked to take a close look at the road configuration and provide a written report on whether it allows for necessary emergency access. That report should discuss whether the alternative cul-de-sac plan is an acceptable alternative.

14. The road in the current plan does not seem to allow adequate setbacks from the pond and wetlands, as required by town specification. They may not meet state Department of Environmental Management specifications.

15. The proposed plan contemplates an addition of 40 automobiles. The Island’s fragile environment can hardly accommodate that. The plan seems to send a message that two automobiles for each residence is the expected norm. The neighborhood would be enhanced for the residents, especially the children, if accommodations for some motor vehicles are in a cluster lot, much like the Searles Ball housing and the Old Harbor Meadow complex. Not every unit needs to have auto parking right next to it. By clustering some of the cars, there will be less wear and tear on the land, less uncontrolled run-off of oils and other auto discharges into the fragile wetland by West Side Road. And the neighborhood will be improved aesthetically.

16. And yet, the proposed plan seems to have no accommodations for visitor parking. By clustering some of the residents’ parking, that space could be used for owner-occupants and for some visitor parking. This might make the right-of-way to the Greenway trail accessible to more people. Why not provide space for one automobile adjoining some units and create a small cluster lot for other automobiles. The plan could also designate additional space for additional parking if it becomes necessary in the future?

17. A vast amount of the proposed plan is devoted to automobiles, either coming and going to the residences or parked. In fact, there is almost as much space devoted to motor vehicles as to human beings. This is an inefficient use of the acreage, and incompatible with the values of the community.

18. In the current unclustered proposals, most if not all of the units will not have adequate setbacks to allow an owner easily to expand the footprint or otherwise personalize the house. He or she would need to get zoning approval for a modest expansion. This would require moderate-income property owners probably to hire lawyers, engineers, and designers for a modest expansion. Clustering the units eliminates the need for setback variances in the future.

When I met with you and Mary Jane in January, she said that there would be no paving and no central air conditioning; I trust that this remains part of the plan.

Under the Community Development Block Grant interim financing grant, the project managers, before money is spent, must conduct an environmental review, with public comments. This provides the opportunity for us to consider these suggestions – and suggestions from others – and come up with a plan that a wide consensus of Islanders can support. We will then be able to have the plan presented to the Planning Board and Zoning Board with widespread support for it in the community.

The state agencies responsible for funding this project have told me that all of these modifications to the proposal can be considered at this point in the process and that the project plans can be altered accordingly. I plan to present these suggestions to the Planning Board. It would speed the process if we could reach an agreement before the project goes before the Planning Board.

Time is of the essence, for two reasons. The community needs the affordable housing right away. And all of us want to have an Island-based non-profit organization develop this project and fulfill the town’s needs rather than to risk leaving affordable-housing development to commercial developers who may use provisions of state law to bring to the community a bogus “affordable housing” venture.

Yours truly,

Robert Ellis Smith
Member, New Shoreham Town Council

Cc: Mary Jane Balser


Newbie said...

Mr Smith writes this letter as though this is the last affordable housing project the Island will ever do so we should fit everyones need now.
I understand some of his points, but what he doesn't seem to understand, is that by providing homes to the people on the list, the apartments they vacate will open up for those who can't afford to buy, or who aren't prepared to make the committment to the Island. (The teachers, police officers, etc. he mentions.)
Again, it's all about economics, which Mr. Smith just doesn't seem to get.
He also need to understand, that like every other housing deveopement that has been built, the single people who don't "need" two bedrooms, two cars, a basement, and an unfinished second floor, might be single because they didn't have a house to live in. But that many of these single people will take on roommates, or get married,thus easing the housing crunch for seasonal workers, or single year-round residents.
As far as the cars taking up more room than the humans, is he serious?
As far as not undersatnding why homeowners would require parking for two cars, he is an idiot. Fu=irst of all having two spaces does not mean you will have two cars. It means you have a place for friends to park when visiting, or for the oil truck to park while it fills you tank. And if you do have two cars (heaven forbid! Imagine it!) Maybe it's because you've paid $320,000 for a two bedroom (that's right TWO bedroom)house and you and your spouse has to work to pay for it! Or maybe, you've created a family with future Islanders and they need to go to school, and piano practice, and occasionaly to the boat for a trip to the mainland. I guess you could take a cab. Give me a break.
As far as all that unused heated space (Is this guy really that stupid?) You obviously don't heat the second floor, and I hardly know of anyone who has a heated basement (unless it's finished).

As far as his concerns about siting, massing and communal parking, I really think that if the homeowners are willing to plunk down a heafty chunck of change on these houses as presented, then let them. They don't need to be saved from themselves. We may not have law degrees, but we have a better understanding of what the Island needs than Mr. Smith does. Unless, Mr. Smith has ever had to worry about where he was going to live for the summer (along with his kids), he can not understand. If Mr. Smith had his way, you would have to have only one qualification to consider you worthy of the status of Islander - wealth!
Now that we have seen this letter, we should write to the BI Times in support of the project and crucify (maybe that is too nice of a way to put it) Bob Smith.
He seems to think the Island is not behind this project. I BEG TO DIFFER!

Anonymous said...

I think Bob Smith's ideas are right on the money. Hot air rises - as I was taught in grammer school. Therefor, heated or not, your second floor will increase your heating bill. Also,I didn't realize you had to own a house to be married. I wasn't. Yes, $320,000 is a lot of money but it is still considerbly less than the cureent market value. These affordable houses should be treated as a "stepping stone" to a larger home - just as they are on mainland communities. Bob Smith's plan to include smaller residences and clustered residences makes the entire project even more affordable as I am sure many people cannot afford $320,000.

Anonymous said...

"10. In fact, as I understand the current qualification requirements, the newcomers would not even qualify for the ownership units. That means that we cannot use this new development of 20 affordable ownership units as a recruiting tool for the positions that we need to fill shortly."

Mr. Smith, How about we worry about the people who have been out here for a few years and who have proven that they are community players. The newcomers could perhaps rent one of those extra rooms in the new housing units and help with those heating bills.

Newbie said...

Of course you don't have to be married to own a house. The house prices are 175? to 320,000 depending on income. Yes, hot air rises whether from a first floor to a second, or from a first floor through the roof. That is what insulation is for! And seeing as many of the people on the list have a child or two, I doubt the 2nd floors will remain unfinished for long.

As far as the price. A house on a quarter acre lot surrounded by other houses, most without views, that CAN NOT be rented seasonally, for that amount of money, strikes me as fair market value.
Who else but a year-round resident would buy them with those restrictions.
You are right about one thing, these houses can be stepping stones. So there will hopefully be some turnaround.
Why shouldn't these people be able to prosper, it is the American dream.

I'm starting to think Mr. Smith should be more worried about Seawinds, and other types of development, than worrying about one that should at least in spirit have his support. Why didn't he write that letter for the whole town to read? He is sneaky! He is not a public servant, he is self-serving. What he wants over the needs of the Town and 20 prospective homeowners.

Anonymous said...

This is the typical opposition strategy. Pardon the vulgar language...but Bob Smith is "throwing as much shit up against the wall as possible to see what sticks."

Any time someone opposes a project they don't say something like "I don't think this project is right for BI," they properly and strategically raise as many substantive arguments as possible.

Does Bob really care about the issues he raised? Probably not. Does he want to sink the project? It appears so.

If you look at other development projects such as the Filippi Marina in Old Harbor and Seawinds for instance, whether you think they are good or bad, the well funded and/or well counseled opposition brings up as many arguments as possible even if they have no substance. The same thing is happening in the Champlins case.

It is a war of attrition. Whoever can pay their lawyers to wrangle for longer will win.

Bob has raised as many arguments as possible, not in the hope of "fixing" the project, but in the hopes of sinking it.

Could Bob really come out and say he doesn't like the project? No, of course not, he is a politician. What he can do is make himself appear to be a concerned objector, and therefore delay the project for as long as possible, and hopefully sink it permanently. There really are no other avenues available for him to oppose the project. If he came out and said that he doesn’t want the project, the Islanders would march on town hall with pitchforks! His motivations are clear.

The BIRA is one powerful lobbying group.

Anonymous said...

Mr Smith: Regarding #13 about emergency equipment. Had you been at even SOME of the innumerable meetings regarding this housing project, you would know that the fire department has already talked about the road configuration and emergency vehicles and they said that the circular pattern was good.

From #15 "Not every unit needs to have auto parking right next to it. By clustering some of the cars, there will be less wear and tear on the land,..." Have you been out here during a typically windy, rainy day during the fall/winter/spring? Have you ever tried to carry anything from your car to your house, or vice versa? Why would someone want to park their car farther away than is necessary? That does not make any kind of sense. How close do you park your car to your house?

What about less wear and tear on my back, Mr. Smith and never mind the land. There seem to be enough people out there who worry about the land, Mr Smith. The land does not vote, Mr Smith, people do. You can rest assured that you will NOT have my vote next time.

Sam said...

Sounds like a time for a recall.
Sounds like time for getting "initiative and referendum" power to over-rule things.
Sounds like you all are quite upset with each other!

Well, may I suggest a facilitator or less heated discourse for starters. It is somewhat obvious to me, as an independent observer, that Mr. Smith has some rational viewpoints, a definite conflict of interest, and a potential misunderstanding of the Island folks who cannot afford the astronomical real estate values.

Perhaps he represents more of things expoused by the BIRA. We have a similar organization on Padre Island called SPIRIT, which is mainly wealthy old coots, developers, and real estate magnates. Don't get me wrong, they are ardent environmentalists that truly want the Island economy to succeed. It's just that they have a vision that all is orderly, like a model train town where everything is color-coordinated, without any deviations from their Master Plan.

Putting the psychology of the situation aside (of which I could write a length), the BIRA does not want to screw poor working folks and the opposing camp does not want to make a land grab at the expense of others. You actually are very close but are ... what were my mother's words ...

Anonymous said...

This guy is so misinformed on so many counts,it's laughable. When did he become an expert on constrution costs. And by the way the forty cars he talks about are already here, as the people who are going to buy those houses are here! I could go on forever but my wife just left for work in her car and I have to get to work in mine.

Anonymous said...

Who does Mr. Smith think voted him into office? Who does he represent? I think the "plasterer" and the "carpenter" are more insightful than the brilliant "Privacy Expert" when it comes to judging the needs of the island and the island residents.
Two things are clear: 1) that Mr. Smith's dislike of Mary Jane Balser is all-consuming. 2) that Mr. Smith believes he is smarter than the rest of us.

I believe Mr. Smith cannot effectively represent us because he does not understand who we are, why we are here or what we want, both for ourselves and for the island.

Does he really think that we don't have respect for the environment? Did I read correctly that he is placing the needs of the freshly arrived over those who have sacrificed all kinds of things (a year round living situation, privacy, relationships, higher incomes, etc.)to stay? Why does he think that a "new" teacher who needs/wants housing is more important than an existing teacher who needs housing?

"Newbie" addresses the auto issue perfectly (I would like to know if Mr. Smith has ever had his car door whipped right out of his hands as he tries to negociate his way from car to house with an infant and two bags of groceries; a regular occurance for many of us on B.I.). Perhaps Mr. Smith thinks we all own a gas-guzzler as big as his. He should look a little closer to home if he is looking to save fossil fuel and stop speculating on how much oil other people may use to heat their homes.

A much larger issue that Mr. Smith totally fails to address is that of State mandates for affordable housing. The state requires that a certain percentage of the housing stock in EVERY town be affordable. Once this housing project is finished, the Town of New Shoreham will be in comliance with that state mandate (and we may be the ONLY town to meet the goal). That effectively closes the loop-hole under which projects such as Seawinds and Champlin's have applied (if percentages for providing affordable housing have been met, then the town won't "need" the affordable housing they are using in order to get the rest of their market-value units through the zoning process.)

Mr. Smith ignores the fact that the Sewer Commission has had a project on the table for some time now that would provide rental units for year round residents. He also doesn't factor in the apartments and houses that will open up when 20 individuals or families move out of them and into the new homes.

This is not an easy place to live. None of my friends from college move several times a year. They don't shuffle their groceries and other purchases from one mode of transportation to another three or more times before they reach home. They don't work two or more jobs, some for only a couple of months. They don't have to rent their homes out for three months in order to make the other nine more comfortable. They don't live under the microscope that only a tiny town/island can provide, where people you don't even know seem to know everything about you; true or not. No one would put up with all that if there wasn't something really worth it.

When my three year old told me she "lives in the most beautiful place in the world" I knew it was worth it. Does Bob Smith know he lives part-time in the most beautiful place in the world? Or is he just keeping an eye on the property values?

Anonymous said...

Don't be fooled. Mr. Smith is not really that intelligent. It is just when one who is average sits amongst a bunch of idiots, he appears to be smart.

It is the big fish/small pond theory...and when it comes to mental capacity, BI is a very, very small pond.

I will give him this though, he was crafty enough to get all of you to vote for him!!! He did not just win, it was a resounding victory.

Gee BI, maybe it would have been worthwile to figure someone out before you elect them into office?

It obviously was not just the NY'ers who voted him in...he had over 700 votes!


Anonymous said...

...and we have George W. for president. Our elections are fair, but voters are easily swayed and often end up with "morons" running the show.
In defense of all the voters who didn't realize what Mr. Smith was all about and voted for him....were there really any better choices on the ballot?

Anonymous said...

Thank God there's a reasonable and balanced individual on the Town Council. Bob Smith did the appropriate thing by writing to the head of BIED about his legitimate concerns and also copying Mary Jane Balser. As he says in his letter, "we have to get it right." The worst thing that could happen with this project is to screw it up at the initial design and layout phase just to appease the impatient demands of prospective residents. For some reason his letter seems to have provoked a number of conspiracy theories that Smith's very genuine issues are a sinister plot by BIRA and the summer residents to prevent the hardworking year round residents from getting their piece of the American dream. That's nonsense, and I would hope that intelligent people can work this out in due course without demeaning the honest efforts of a councilman. Block Island is a very fragile place, and any kind of development has to be looked at under a microscope. The West Side affordable housing project should bear the same scrutiny as the Champlins expansion and every other major project.

Island Worker said...

How can you compare the West Side Housing project to Champlins? Obviously you have your piece of BI and feel "those people" should be happy with whatever crumbs they can get.

"she who is not amused" said...

According to the Projo this week, in order to afford a house on the island one must earn $121.00 per hour with a yearly salary of $251,675. Those figures are for an $800,000 home with a monthly mortgage of $6,292. A footnote stated that these figures were based on the fact that"New Shoreham had only one single family home sold in 2003-2005 and it went for $800,000". What if the Projo had been accurate in it's search for island property transfers?-- $800,000 sounds like a good deal! What we need is more lawyers building and buying. Yeah--that's the ticket!!!! What will happen when my grandchildren want to live here after having spent there lives living here? Moms and Dads--some advice....brace yourselves for live-in adult kids, that is, unless they all become lawyers and CEO s. Thank goodness I have a part time job.

she who is really not amused said...

Couldn't let it rest! Went to BIT archives. Property transfers for ending quarter of 2004 as reported in 1/10/2005 edition are as follows: 19 properties changed hands. If my calculations are correct: total value=$25,612,650. Average price=$1,348,034!!!!!!!!!! I comment about my calculations because my mind was in disbelief. Bear in mind that some of these transfer prices were as low as$30,00-$300,00(and change) to coin a phrase. Forget CEOs and lawyers. Welcome Mr. Trump and your development ideas. A casino---that's the ticket. Driving over on the 13 mile bridge should take only 20 minutes or so at a reasonable speed. Sorry working folks this island has become too rich for our plain ol' blood. Long live the elite and the "part time residents" who have theirs--- so laisez le bontemps roulez !!!!!!!