The Granoff proposal to split their land at Blackstone Boulevard and Rochambeau Avenue up into 12 lots (the two largest would include their fine old house built in 1915 and owned by the Granoffs since the ’60s) was rejected by the City Plan Commission last night. The vote had to take place last night because under the law an application is automatically approved if the commission doesn’t act within its deadline. For the Granoff application that was Jan. 12, and the commission had no meeting scheduled before then.
The crux of the issue turned out to be the idea that the Granoffs had no plan to build on the land or tamper with what is there now. This is apparently true, but I’m not sure exactly why it was pertinent under the law. Their lawyer, Tom Moses, cited cases where people who own smaller lots subdivide them in two but with no plan to build until some genuinely unknown time in the future, such as when they might need retirement income. But for a large parcel the idea seemed absurd to the audience, which laughed and laughed. Two commissioners decided to go with the audience rather than the commission staff’s interpretation of the law.
It makes sense to me that you should be able to legally subdivide your land without building something next to your existing house. This is essentially what Moses said the Granoffs were doing. Only when they decided to build – or more likely sold the land to a developer with plans to build – would more information be required on their application. I suppose that whether the application was judged complete or incomplete rested on its status as a “major subdivision” or a “major land development” and whether that status required information that would not be required if all the Granoffs wanted to do was to split half an acre in two. That would be a minor subdivision. This was more than that.
Many audience members giving testimony argued that the commissioners should take the neighborhood’s character into account, that the Comprehensive Plan was quite clear in requiring that, and that if the zoning regulations for a subdivision of this magnitude do not require that, then the law ought to be changed.
One witness from the audience argued forcefully that the commission had an obligation to view the matter as penetrating deep into the future. Subdivision and new housing happens all the time, she said, and little by little, before you know it, if no official authority is paying attention, a beautiful place is no longer beautiful. She did not add that this process has been under way for decades in the Blackstone neighborhood. No, the official bodies with proper jurisdiction and authority have not been paying attention.
These assertions make a lot of sense to me, and the Blackstone neighbors backed their assertions with numbers – not statistics but a crowd full of passion: Two commissioners, JoAnn Ryan and Harry Bilodeau, were inspired by the audience to take their stewardship seriously. They did not ignore the law; they merely interpreted it with greater instinctive intelligence than the rest of the commission.
As for the Granoffs, they can apply again to subdivide their property, but the new zoning law boosts minimum lot size from 6,000 square feet to 7, 500 square feet. In the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t mean much – maybe eight new houses rather than 10 new houses. The threat to the stone wall, circa 1849, that everyone loves about this land would remain dire. Only an interior private road that gathers the houses’ driveways can resolve that threat. And the threat to the character of what is, after all, a historic district, would continue to depend on the future design of individual houses. But next time around, the Granoffs know that the Blackstoners will come downtown loaded for bear.
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Well spoken. We have similar issues here in my neighborhood is San Diego and having a vigilant Planning Group and a community that turns out at City Hall makes all the difference.
Barbara Measelle (formerly Fuchs)
Regardless of the merits of the case, opinion of which I’ll keep to myself, perhaps the lessons learned here are six: (1) Don’t try to pull a fast one on vigilant neighbors especially if your plan appears to go against existing neighborhood character. Instead involve the community in informational meetings far in advance of regulatory applications.(2) If you are the applicant, ask the advice of historic property experts if applicable and be sure your representatives understand the law in regard to historic preservation, the comprehensive plan, and what National Register listing really means. (3) Voluntarily seek the expert services of the Providence Preservation Society prior to submitting your application for regulatory review. PPS is likely to comment anyway, so why not involve them in the process to achieve the most marketable property outcome, the best opportunity for neighborhood communication, and a way to achieve both your professed stewardship proclivities and affection for your community. (4) Direct your agents and representatives (and this goes for all interested parties) to leave their arrogant attitudes outside the hearing room, treat others as you wish to be treated, and observe the procedures of the hearing body when they are made clear by the Chair. (5) Those organizing public hearings should be confident enough and transparent enough to enable applicants AND members of the public to hear what is being testified to. Commissioners and their staff holding hands in front of their faces when offering opinions thereby obscuring what is being said, speaking in low voices and only to other commissioners rather than all interested parties, and otherwise appearing to overlook those in the audience who sincerely wish to listen to proceedings work against a transparent process in which all have confidence.