NARRAGANSETT – Candidates for Narragansett Town Council met virtually Wednesday night for a forum hosted by the Narragansett Pier Residents Association (NPRA) on a wide range of local topics, from the future of Boon Street to regrets about the library project that has divided town politics for the past term. Challenger Susan Cicilline Buonanno did not participate due to a prior engagement.
The virtual format of the forum — mostly consisting of inquiries pitched to trios of candidates with universal, lightning-round questions, along with opening and closing statements — did not encourage much crosstalk. It did, however, afford an opportunity for those seeking a seat on the council in 2020 to clearly give their positions on a variety of significant topics that will define the future of Narragansett. The issues that prevailed throughout the two-plus-hour discussion were shaping neighborhoods to be more in line with their intended use and the library project. The event was moderated by NPRA members Dennis Lynch and Harold Schofield.
On a question making note of “substantial change” and the two new hotels proposed for construction on Boon Street, Lynch asked candidates Steven Belaus, Jill Lawler and Win Hames if the area was the “new town center” and if the town was “moving in the right direction” with such development.
“For that extension through Boon Street, it’s probably something we should have done in the past, minus Narragansett Avenue,” said challenger Belaus. “I do support that, from the old train station down to the Pier Market, but I do think the Pier Market should be incorporated into that. I think the new library would act as anchor for future businesses. I think there’s room to still grow in the pier for some businesses.”
“I’d like to attract other types of business to the area as well,” he continued. “A micro-brewery would be nice down there.”
“I was just out at Boon Street along with the chamber of commerce director to have a meeting with some of the Boon Street merchants,” said Lawler, the incumbent council president pro tem. “Boon Street, I believe, is something we haven’t enhanced enough. We have Wakefield and we see what Wakefield does in the summer and the winter. They have a great downtown area. They string lights, they have parties, they bring people in and there’s a center of commerce. I think Boon Street could be our center of commerce. One of the boutique hotels that is being put up I find especially beautiful and I do like the idea of bringing in some more stores to the Boon Street area.”
“As everyone knows, I’m an advocate of potentially renovating at the current library or moving it to the community center, which would then free up a great corner of space where the current library is where we could bring in certainly a store, it’s a natural place for a merchant,” she added.
“My biggest concern is parking for one of the hotels proposed on Boon Street,” answered Hames, a challenger. “Even for the further development of Boon Street, what are you going to do for parking? You can have all the greatest shops in the world, but if there’s nowhere for somebody to park their car, they’re not going to come in there.”
“[Boon Street] has always been underdeveloped for all the years I’ve lived here,” Hames continued. “Everything could be upgraded and I think it could be a mini center of the town, there’s no doubt about that…As far as the Pier, the library is going to be the center of attention, it’s going to draw more people down there, but you can’t turn the buildings around to face the ocean. They face away from the ocean, so we have to do the best we can possibly do down there. I think the library will be a tremendous asset to that area.”
Candidates Deborah Kopech, Richard Lema and Patrick Murray were asked about local senior services and changes they would make for senior residents if elected.
“I do hear complaints about the lack of services for seniors in Narragansett, so it’s something that definitely requires some evaluation,” said Kopech, a challenger. “One of the thoughts I’ve had about that is to work in conjunction with South Kingstown because they have such a large facility and because it’s very accessible to Narragansett seniors.”
“There’s a lot that can be done and I think we need to do a better job of ensuring that seniors have access to a good quality of life,” Kopech continued. “One of those ways is actually to improve our library and make it more accessible to seniors. I know the seniors take a great deal of interest in what happens at the library, both events that happen and access to all sorts of media.”
“We do have a great senior population in this town,” said incumbent Lema. “We already share a lot with South Kingstown. We just put a ton of money into the community center, we got it up and running and it’s a beautiful location. They now have a meal program that was implemented before COVID and we bought a new bus. This is one of the reasons why I wish to put a library by the community center.”
“We could combine [after-school, community and library services and events] all together in one location, and really reduce the cost to the taxpayers of this town,” he added. “Those are the things we should be focusing on for the future of the town – how we can give the taxpayers the most bang for their buck.”
“Seniors are doing pretty good in Narragansett,” said Murray, incumbent. “We just rehab’d the outside of the senior center. There are many programs, they go on trips, as Ricky just said they started serving meals over there. That helped out quite well for COVID-19. We just purchased a new, $65,000 bus [for the community center].”
“There’s also a little-known program we have where, if you’re a senior, and you need a new roof or a new furnace, there’s money there, funded every year by either the state or the feds, where you can take a low-interest loan to help with repairs for elderly people who own a home and need some assistance,” he added. “It’s a great place to grow old here in Narragansett that’s why I’m not going anywhere.”
About halfway through the first round of questioning, moderators brought up the recent rise of application-based bed-and-breakfast rentals and its impact on residential quality of life. Narragansett, which, along with Providence and Newport, serves as one of Rhode Island’s most coveted tourist destinations, has seen a dramatic shift in its housing stock as more and more properties are converted for such purposes or rented to students from the University of Rhode Island. The issue was posed to candidates Belaus, Lawler and Jesse Pugh.
“I worked for the U.S. Census here in town for the entire month of August and the beginning of September and I saw, first hand, a lot of Airbnbs, a lot BRBOs, a lot of properties being operated as commercial activity in residential areas,” said Belaus. “I think, of all of them that I looked at, there’s probably one that’s actually classified as a business. These are properties that, there’s no resident there ever, there’s out-of-state owners, even some local owners, but I do believe that if you’re operating as a commercial activity, that you should probably be paying the business tax rate, not the residential tax rate.”
In Narragansett, businesses pay 40 percent more in property tax than residents.
“It’s such a good deal in town that there’s not only one property that an investor buys, there are up to five,” Belaus added. “When you’re operating five businesses in town, in residential areas, they’re businesses.”
“It happens in my neighborhood,” said Lawler. “It means that every week, different people are coming in for vacation and they’re disrupting neighborhoods. They’re bringing their family and friends and increasing our water and sewer uses. They’re the ones taking all the outdoor showers and watering their lawns when we had our water ban this summer.”
“The Airbnbs are problematic to our neighborhoods,” Lawler continued. “As Steve just said, they are actually operated as commercial businesses in a residential neighborhood. One of the things that I would like to do, and I’ve asked to the town manager to look into this and that has begun, there are two towns in the state that also have a problem – Newport and Middletown. One approach those towns are doing is to have licensing put on these establishments. If Airbnb knows there is a law or rule, they will require anyone in Airbnb to put it on.”
Lawler said Newport mandates fees and inspections for businesses licensed as Airbnbs by the city.
“Although some of the candidates have different approaches to this, we all pretty much understand that it is a big issue in town that has to be dealt with,” said Pugh. “Airbnb is one of the side effects of technology. In the same way that Lyft and Uber have kind of decimated the taxi cab industry, Airbnb is having a similar effect on residential real estate because it’s turned it from what was basically a shelter to a commodity, an investment.”
“It’s going to take a bunch of tools, there’s no silver bullet,” he continued. “But the unrelated ordinance is a way to regulate existing Airbnbs. Like Jill said, licensing is a layer on top of it. And the bulk zoning amendments that we spoke of, that’s a way to deter future Airbnbs from being built specifically for that purpose.”
As the town grapples with its approach to balancing local college student behavior with residential quality of life and addressing the increased amounts of Airbnbs and similar property ventures that cater to tourists and students, one solution is to implement bulk zoning, which was last year put forward by the town’s community development department and approved by the Narragansett Planning Board. Bulk zoning, essentially, would codify laws intended to bring properties more in line with the size of the lot they are built on and would require more information be provided to the town prior to construction, along with giving the town more teeth in enforcing such ordinances.
“I believe it’s very important for residents to define the character of their neighborhoods,” said challenger Ewa Dzwierzyski on a question that specifically asked about bulk zoning. “In some locations, it may be appropriate to promote density in the town center or in mixed-use zones where there is access to mass transit. In other cases, it is appropriate for less-intense development.”
Dzwierzynski also advocated for “neighborhood goals to be outlined in a master plan” with input from the community.
“We have to pay close attention to those seeking variations to our current zoning,” she added. “I would expect the zoning board of review to evaluate every variance individually and in the context of the neighborhood’s vision.”
“My understanding of bulk zoning is to take control of our town and neighborhoods and prevent some of the overdevelopment that’s impacting the quiet enjoyment of our residents,” said Laurie Kelly, a challenger. “There’s a lot of different neighborhoods here where people have purchased small houses, knocked them down and really just stretched from one end to the other end of the lot, whether it’s for their own vacation home or they’re doing it for Airbnb or college rental. We have to look to the future and try to prevent our town from moving away from more families, more people in school.”
“[Bulk zoning] is one of those things in the toolbox that I think is really important because we cannot social engineer what we want today by passing a lot of ordinances now,” she added. “We really have to anticipate what we didn’t like about the zoning ordinances and the way the town had moved and what we can do to sort of move people back to single-family homes that are respectful of their neighborhoods and fit in architecturally.”
Nearly all candidates were in agreement when asked what, beyond roads, was the next-most critical infrastructure issue in town – water and sewer.
One of the more interesting questions of the evening came when Lynch asked council incumbents what they would have done differently to avoid the present stalemate around the town’s library project. The town has been deeply divided over a $5.8 million bond to build a new public library, envisioned in the Pier Marketplace’s former IGA/Belmont building, with the current council majority, including Lawler and Lema, voting on a number of occasions to stop the project and sell the property purchased by the town intended for the new facility. In 2016, 68 percent of voters approved funding for a new library. The feud, which has seen incumbents Pugh and Murray attempt to resist the majority, has resulted in uproarious and disorderly council meetings over the past term, protests and lawsuits.
Lawler and Lema both stated that they wished library advocates had not sued the town so that their vision to sell the Pier Marketplace property for an alternate use could have played out. Lynch again asked what either incumbent would have done differently. Both replied they would have done nothing differently.
Murray said he and Pugh attempted to compromise with the majority at numerous times over the past two years, stating the two minority council members had put forward motions to seek price estimates for both options of renovating the existing library and building out the former IGA/Belmont building as the town’s new library, along with other initiatives to hold a special election on the subject and even mediation at the council level. All of these proposals were voted against by the majority.
“I did everything I could to try and get a compromise,” he said.
Pugh agreed with Murray’s point, and was ultimately the only one to answer the question.
“There were definitely moments and periods where I think the behavior, myself included, of the council was not the most becoming of an elected official,” he said. “Looking back, you know, I wish I could have been more composed at certain times, less emotional. I don’t know if it would have made a difference, but I think it’s something we should all strive to do.”
Lynch then asked challengers what they would have done differently had they been on the council. Dzwierzynski, Belaus, Hames, Kopech and Kelly all said they would have followed the will of the people and moved the project forward in the Pier Marketplace space. Kelly, who has deeply feuded with the council majority this term in her role as the chair of the library board of trustees, elaborated.
“I think the big difference is that most of my colleagues and candidates out there is that we’re adults and we can sit at a table and work together,” she said. “That’s no disrespect to [Pugh or Murray] who put out, by my count, something like 14 compromises. Of course, I would have gone forward with the will of the people. I believe in democracy.”
“What I learned is that you can do whatever you want when you’re on the council because no one will enforce the initiative, just like no one could enforce the bond, without a lawsuit,” she added. “It is vitally important that everyone go out and vote for the initiatives in November, but it’s even more important that you select your candidate carefully. Because the people that follow the will and follow democracy, are the people you want on the council representing you.”
In lightning rounds, all candidates besides Kelly and Murray stated they do not own seasonal rental property in Narragansett. Kelly in part owns two rental properties that she leases out for both residential and commercial purposes, and Murray owns and rents out a duplex in the pier on a year-round basis. Candidates Kelly, Kopech, Dzwierzynski and Hames did not offer support for the town’s recent three-college-student ordinance, which would prevent more than three college students from renting a dwelling together in Narragansett, while Lawler, Lema, Murray and Pugh said they were in support of the move. All candidates aid they would support a four-unrelated ordinance, limiting the number of unrelated tenants in a dwelling to four, that would be intended to have a similar effect as the three-college student ordinance.
Cicilline Buonanno also did not participate in NPRA’s forum in 2018. The general election is on Nov. 3. With 10 candidates to choose from, voters will elect five individuals to serve as the new Narragansett Town Council for a two-year term.