Amending the Zoning Ordinance for Low Impact Development

The following letter appeared in local newspapers and is shared with us here by the author Ruth Platner

Ruth Platner

In 2011, the RI Department of Environmental Management’s new stormwater regulations went into effect. These new regulations came out of a 2007 law that required DEM and the Coastal Resources Management Council to amend the 1993 stormwater manual to require recharge or infiltration of a portion of stormwater into the ground and the use of low impact development (LID) techniques as the primary method of stormwater control. LID is an approach to managing stormwater that minimizes the hydrological impacts of development. Stormwater is managed in smaller, more effective treatments that are located throughout the development project rather than being managed in a large detention pond. The primary goal of LID is to mimic the predevelopment hydrology by using design techniques that store, infiltrate, evaporate, and detain runoff as close as possible to the point where precipitation reaches the ground.

To bring our Zoning Ordinance and Subdivision Regulations into compliance with state law and rule changes, the Charlestown Planning Commission selected the Horsley Witten Group to rewrite our ordinances for low impact development. The revised Parking and Landscaping ordinances are part of that effort. Parking lots can be a major source of stormwater runoff, and landscaping can provide infiltration and detention. The rewriting of these two sections of the ordinance are focused on reduction in the size of parking areas if possible, and using the natural and designed landscape as part of stormwater control.

The major change in the Parking section is reduction in the required size of parking lots. New flexibility is added to encourage the applicant to ask for further reductions during the Planning process and up to half the parking may be provided off site. Allowing much smaller parking lots reduces the cost of development, may allow existing businesses to expand without adding more parking, and will provide more room for things such as wellhead protection or a larger building footprint. Smaller parking lots can mean fewer design constraints for the applicant and less stormwater runoff for the community. Landscaping in this section is focused on trees for shade, traffic flow, and stormwater treatment.

The Landscaping section has more new language, as landscaping is a critical LID tool. Here the emphasis is on retaining existing forest where it lies in any required buffer areas or unused areas of the site, using plant species that are drought resistant and likely to thrive in our climate, and using planting methods that ensure the survival of the trees and other plantings. Using LID techniques, the landscape is not just a pretty frame for a development, but a functioning stormwater control method.

Increased flexibility in parking lot and landscape design could be achieved by moving the design aspects of these sections into the Land Development Regulations. The Regulations allow an applicant to propose equal or better solutions without having to request variances. The Planning Commission has provided some built-in flexibility in these Zoning Ordinance changes, but long term we hope to move parts of these to the regulations.

Detailed explanations of the proposed changes to the Zoning Ordinance are available from the Charlestown Planning Department who can be reached during business hours at 401-364-1225.

The Charlestown Town Council will continue a public hearing on changes to the Parking and Landscaping sections of the Zoning Ordinance on Monday, October 7, at 7 p.m.

Ruth Platner
*The writer is Chair of the Charlestown Planning Commission