Public hearing for comprehensive community plan has small turnout

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Only a handful of residents shared their thoughts and feedback with the planning board Thursday night on the town’s drafted comprehensive community plan. 

Even coupled with the two written responses that were received throughout a two-month-long open comment period, the planning department has received limited commentary on a document that will set the vision and goals of South Kingstown for the next two decades to come. 

“It’s disturbing to me that only two people have commented in written capacity and there aren’t that many of us here,” Hope Leeson of Perryville said during Thursday night’s public hearing. 

This vision for the town’s future looks to several different areas, from housing and economic development to the services and facilities. One portion of South Kingstown’s comprehensive community plan is even solely dedicated to the University of Rhode Island. 

In the upcoming plan, the town will be looking into three new elements, according to Interim Planning Director Kaela Gray. The first is energy, which will look at municipal energy consumption and ways the town can become more efficient with its usage, and hopefully, more dependent upon renewable energy sources. The second new element, natural hazards and climate change, will assess the town’s vulnerability to storm events and natural hazards to help reduce impact and improve resilience. A third, brand new section will also provide demographics about the citizens who live in town, such as their education levels and fields of employment, race, overall population and income levels.

Some of the biggest changes happening in the comprehensive plan, however, have to do with proposed changes to zoning districts, allowing for density increases and more mixed-use.

Several members of the public raised concerns on Thursday, cautioning the planning department to protect South Kingstown from overdevelopment. David Flanders of Wakefield was particularly concerned about maintaining the character of the local villages.

“We are a town of extremely different villages,” Flanders said. “Everyone is just so different from each other and I think that’s one of the highlights that we have here.”

Although the comprehensive community plan calls for preserving this character, there are also plans that call for “additional density in the villages” to “support the town’s long-term economic sustainability.”

“When we get down to the guiding principles and the zoning and such, the nuts and bolts of the thing, I see that that’s actually at odds with preserving the integrity of the town’s villages,” he said. 

Building on top of the density that already exists in the centers of each village isn’t a feasible way to move forward, Flanders said. Mixed-use districts, however, which allow for apartments above businesses, especially those on Main Street, or spaces within the mill districts, he said, could be the answer. Even then, he errs on the side of caution. 

“It’s certainly not visible with the attendance we have here, but a lot of people are not going to be very keen on seeing increased density with new zoning,” Flanders said. 

“Adding further density to the villages runs contrary to the land use goal for the integrity of the town’s villages,” he added. “I don’t see how we can make them dense and still retain the existing character. It’s an oxymoron.”

Rhode Island State Rep. Kathleen Fogarty (D – Dist. 35) also expressed concern about potential zoning changes, and warned members of the planning board to “be careful.” In her experience serving at the Statehouse, she’s found that “a lot of developers would like to get down here to South Kingstown and develop as much as they possibly can.”

“Don’t rush these things,” Fogarty told members of the board. “Be very, very careful, or we’re not going to look like South Kingstown.” 

Among others, Fogarty urged the board and the department to consider keeping the written comment period open longer. Though she had shared news about the ongoing public comment period and the importance of the comprehensive community plan with constituents, Fogarty said many people still don’t know about these potential changes.

In addition to comments about density, other residents shared their worries about more closely monitoring the Saugatucket River, making Route 2 more pedestrian friendly and safe, and implementing design standards for future developers to abide by. 

While there wasn’t much turn out last week, planning board member F. Steven DiMasi said the department has tried to get the public engaged in the process, which started back in 2017, through public forums and meetings. Initially, he’s been in favor of not extending the comment period to continue with the process.

“You need a cut off period to move forward,” DiMasi said. “That’s the only issue I see. I hear what you’re saying, but we’re waiting for comments and now people are saying ‘We haven’t had a chance to comment.’”

Town Manager Robert Zarnetske also added that the public would have a chance to comment on the plans again after the department was able to summarize comments, decide what to do with them and vote on their official recommendation. Members of the community are always able to make written comments to the council and would be able to participate in public comment once the recommendation comes before them, but Zarnetske was also in favor of extending the comment period. 

Gray agreed with comments made by members of the public and elected officials that it is difficult to reach people in today’s world of ever-changing communication. One way the department had tried to reach out to people was through Facebook, as well as an email notification for those who are signed up on the town’s website.

“There’s no reason why we can’t add more public comment,” Gray said. “At the end of the day, it’s a balance between making sure there’s time for public comment and balancing the other side of the coin, which were the opinions that we’ve been taking a little too long to get this comp plan adopted.”

“Hearing the comments about additional public comment, really at the end of the day, we want as much comment as we can possibly get,” she added. 

Members of the planning board unanimously voted to extend the written public comment period deadline to Dec. 17. For those who wish to weigh in on the drafted comprehensive community plan, comments may be submitted to the planning department. Copies of the draft plan can be found online or in hard copy at in the planning department office, the town clerk’s office, or one of the branch libraries at Peace Dale Library, Kingston or Hale Library, or the Senior Center.

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