Editorial – Bryan is right about text change in zoning law

Published 5:41 pm Tuesday, January 30, 2024

We agree with Charles Bryan: The Town of Smithfield is stepping onto a slippery slope if it begins letting individual developers rewrite its zoning ordinances.

The former chairman and still sitting member of the town’s Planning Commission sounded the alarm bells this month before colleagues ignored him and voted to grease the wheels for the 130-home Cottages at Battery development behind Royal Farms convenience store on South Church Street. The Town Council gets final say, with a public hearing scheduled for Feb. 6.

Suffolk-based Quality Homes Inc. and developer Brian Mullins want to build 130 detached, roughly 1,000- to 1,300-square-foot one- and two-story houses. The site has been approved for 150 condos since 2020.

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As our Stephen Faleski reported recently, Mullins proposes to apply for attached residential zoning. Currently, the town’s definition of attached residential allows detached houses only by special use permit and only if such units don’t comprise more than 25% of the total units planned. The zoning ordinance change Mullins is requesting would allow him to apply for attached residential zoning by allowing by special use permit any elements of what he’s proposing that currently conflict with the attached residential standards.

The specific zoning ordinance changes Mullins seeks would repeal a requirement that “minimum lot and yard requirements” be met “as if lot lines existed,” and replace it with language stating “all” zoning district regulations must be met “as if lot lines existed, unless approved by special use permit.”

Bryan, in an eloquent, forceful dissent, said that “it’s almost as if every two or three months we are revising our ordinances.”

“We’re trying to control growth here,” Bryan said, adding that the proposed ordinance change “undermines the zone’s intent.”

The town has alternatives for blessing development projects through rezoning and special use permits. Text amendments should be reserved for fixing flawed ordinances, not aiding a single developer’s plans. 

Colleagues argued that they weren’t blessing the project but just allowing it to proceed to the application stage, with more public hearings and votes needed by both the Planning Commission and Town Council.

That’s correct as a procedural matter, but those of us who have been watching town government’s salivation over residential growth in recent years know exactly where this is headed.