By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Council voted to move forward with a development project known as Karig Estates, despite the protests of residents, environmentalists and neighbors.
The Karig Estates project involves building four single-family homes in the multi-acre plot behind Beth El Hebrew Congregation.
Neighbors had filed six appeals to the planning commission’s Nov. 9 decision to approve the site plan. Council voted 6-1 to deny the appeals, with Mayor Allison Silberberg casting the only opposing vote.
Of the 26 people who spoke at Saturday’s public hearing, several voiced concerns about the environmental implications of building houses in the wooded area, which includes a swale, or ravine. Although the swale is not environmentally protected by city, state or federal regulations, the isolated wetland within it cannot be developed within a 50-foot buffer.
When city staff presented the case to council, they made one thing clear – because of the nature of the appeals, council’s job was to determine whether the project legally met the approval standards determined by the city code.
Regardless of personal reservations or other concerns, council had an obligation to approve the site plan for Karig Estates unless they found it to be legally deficient, City Attorney James Banks said.
“Council only has the authority to determine whether the project meets the approval standards, not whether any alternative plans are preferable,” Nathan Randall, a planner with the Department of Planning & Zoning, said.
In staff’s presentation, they identified 14 grounds for appeal from the letters filed with the city clerk. Of the 14, staff identified that council should only consider the seven grounds relevant to site plan standards, zoning ordinances and other requirements. Randall proceeded to explain why each of the seven were legally satisfactory.
More than 20 of the public speakers voiced opposition to the plan, expressing concerns about environmental preservation, the stability of houses built on marine clay, storm water runoff and whether the wetland was considered a Resource Protection Area.
Christina Lytle, who lives on Colonel Ellis Avenue, asked councilors not to discount residents’ concerns.
“Don’t do what everyone’s expecting and let the commission rule unchecked … we just don’t want you as council members to let this go,” Lytle said. “Eco city – is that just a stamp you put on things to make it look nice, or is there something behind it?”
Julienne Bramesco, president of Beth El Hebrew Congregation, suggested compromising.
“A compromise is possible,” she said. “We are very much willing to work with developers to come up with a plan.”
Other speakers encouraged council to support the planning commission and deny the appeals. Kevin Durkin, a resident who lives on Seminary Road, said his property will fall within 70 feet of the new developments. He said the developer has already made compromises, including protecting 41 percent of the tree canopy, while the city code only requires preservation of 25 percent.
“The developer has shown a willingness to act responsibly and to address the concerns of the neighbors,” he said. “The city staff, the developer and the Karig family have followed every zoning requirement, regulation and law to develop this property in a responsible way.”
In the midst of the public hearing period, both Councilor Del Pepper and Mayor Allison Silberberg asked numerous questions about terminology and, specifically, why the isolated wetland was not classified as an RPA. If it were an RPA, the wetland would have a buffer of 100 feet, rather than 50 feet. Several residents said a larger buffer would move the houses closer to Seminary Road and appease their concerns.
The seep is not classified a perennial or intermittent stream – both of which would be considered RPAs – because it doesn’t meet the state definition that has been adopted by the city. The primary reason is that the water goes through a 24-inch pipe, according to William Skrabak, deputy director of infrastructure & environmental quality for T&ES.
Both Pepper and Silberberg disagreed with the terminology, saying they had visited the site and did not understand why something that looked like a stream would not be considered a stream.
“It sure meets the common sense interpretation, doesn’t it?” Pepper said.
Karl Moritz, director of the Department of Planning & Zoning, said staff could not work outside of previously determined classifications and regulations.
“Staff is restrained by the laws we have put together – federal, state and local – to decide what we can protect and what we can require a developer to protect,” Moritz said. “We can’t require a developer to protect something that we have not designated previously as something that requires legal protection.”
Pepper said she was reluctant to deny the appeals because of the volume of concerned residents.
“I don’t want to get into an argument, but you’ve got a whole audience of people who are making recommendations, and they’re telling us how bad this or that is,” Pepper said. “Unless that is responded to, each point, they are going to leave feeling either that they weren’t heard or that we do not care or that we just came here to rubber stamp it all anyway.”
After nearly five hours of discussion, City Manager Mark Jinks spoke to defend city staff.
“I just wanted to go back and indicate the staff here has been exceedingly thorough,” he said. “We know there’s a lot at stake here for not just the applicant, but the neighbors. The staff have been very thorough, and I’d say very professional in their knowledge and their application of that knowledge, given the laws that we’re basically responsible for enforcing and interpreting.”
Councilor Paul Smedberg also addressed some of the speakers’ attacks.
“I would really hate for people to leave here with some of the comments that were made that we’re not doing the best we can with the eco city plan, because I think it’s really unfair,” Smedberg said.
Despite reservations and concerns, council was unable to identify grounds for appeal that they considered illegal, and they voted 6-1 to affirm the planning commission’s decision.
“This is now the third appeal that has come before us in the last year or so where the rules that we’ve got in place … have cornered us into having to make decisions that we may not want to make, but they are what they are,” Pepper said. “They are the law, they are the code, and they are the rules that we are required to follow, whether or not we agree with them or we want them.”