The Planning Board is in the middle of reviewing a proposal from East Greenwich developer Tom Primeau, who wants to build 16 condominiums (a collection of duplexes and triplexes) on the 5.4 acre site at 62 South Pierce Road at Cora Street.
The development, called Coggeshall Preserve, is hotly contested by neighbors. The initial public hearing on Primeau’s Comprehensive Permit application, on Aug. 2, was filled with abutting and nearby residents. After Primeau’s development team made its presentation, the public was allowed to comment. The meeting went four hours before the Planning Board finally called a halt just after 11 p.m. because there were several more people who wanted to comment on the development. The board will take up the hearing again at its meeting Sept. 20.
A Comprehensive Permit is allowed when a developer includes units deemed “affordable.” Coggeshall Preserve would include four affordable units. That enables the proposal to bypass the Zoning Board, the Town Council and, in this case, the Historic District Commission, with final approval coming from the Planning Board alone (but a Planning Board imbued with the powers of the other boards).
By state law, municipalities are supposed to have 10 percent of their housing stock in the affordable category. East Greenwich’s affordable percentage is 4.6 percent. To reach 10 percent, East Greenwich would need to add 290 units, according to HousingWorksRI. (Affordable housing is not the same as low- to moderate-income housing. Rather, for home ownership, it is calculated to serve people who make less than 120 percent of the median income for, in this case, Kent County.) The state created the Comprehensive Permit application to help fast-track developments that include affordable housing units since so many communities fall short of the 10 percent goal.
The town’s Staff Report (find it here: Planning Dept. Staff Report – 62South Pierce) notes that several of the planned residences are on federally designated floodplain areas and that “local regulations call for all lands designated as floodplain or other flood hazard area to remain in an open space or undeveloped state.” Primeau’s team is seeking a floodplain map amendment through FEMA but the staff report recommends the developer be prepared to reduce the number of units if he does not get a map amendment.
In addition, the Department of Public Works has concerns about stormwater retention structures in the flood zone. Those too would need to be relocated, the report said.
“Granting this waiver is not recommended at this time,” the report reads.
Project engineer Nicole Reilly of DiPrete Engineering said the site had different elevations and that the developer planned to raise the elevation of the site to above-floodplain levels.
A sticking point for neighbors of 62 South Pierce is the planned demolition of the main house on the property, which was built around 1705, making it one of the oldest structures in East Greenwich. The house has a distinctive chimney that Primeau said he will replicate in a new building near the site of the original house and the plan calls for useable materials to be salvaged from the original building and used if possible in the new building.
“The site itself and the home are in derelict condition,” said William Landry, lawyer for Primeau, at the hearing Aug. 2. “We are proposing to deconstruct it, move it and rebuild it using new materials … and retaining the chimney structure.”
“The hope is the historic reconstruction will read like a structure that has always been on the street and the realigning residences will look like a neighborhood that’s developed through time around the ‘old’ house,” said project architect David Okerlund.
Structural and civil engineer Craig Carrigan inspected the building for Primeau in March. He said the house had seen too much damage and deferred maintenance through the years to be saved.
“This is one of four structures I’ve seen in my career that you can’t save,” he said. “There’s too much gone at this point to actually bring it back. I can’t figure out how to fix this one. There’s too much damage.”
But one neighbor, during public comment, took issue with those assertions.
Stephen Tyson, who lives a block away and is president of Architectural Preservation Group, said he had restored many structures in similar shape to 62 South Pierce Road.
“The structural problems that were testified to earlier, they are something I do in my sleep,” said Tyson, who has served on EG’s Historic District Commission. “To say this building is falling down is a mischaracterization. It is definitely savable and I think for a reasonable price.”
While the Historic District Commission has no purview over this project since it is applying under Comprehensive Permit guidelines, the Planning Board voted Aug. 2 to refer the project to the HDC for an advisory opinion.
Another issue for nearby residents was the lack of single-family houses and the proximity of two of the structures to houses on Taylor Circle. In particular, a driveway would be within 50 feet of Pam and Wayne Savage’s house. The couple have lived in their house, which abuts the McKenna property, for 40 years.
“It was our starter house that ended up being our last house,” Wayne joked during the Planning Board’s visit to the site Aug. 5. “We took care of this part,” he said gesturing to the area beyond the staked property line. “We wanted to buy another 30 to 40 feet but they wouldn’t sell,” he said of the McKenna family. “We didn’t know this was coming.”
Most of the McKenna property is overgrown. A pond on the site is completely obscured by vegetation. Donald McKenna, who was a janitor at Meadowbrook Farm school for many years, lived in the house with his brother but recently moved to Coventry to live with his daughter after his brother’s death. The land has been in the McKenna family for decades. Some in the neighborhood remember skating on the pond in winter. And everyone knew that the McKennas allowed dumping on the site. Primeau plans extensive remediation of the property, but the state Department of Environmental Management will have to evaluate the condition of the property since there are complaints about dumping dating to the 1970s.
The property has been on the market on and off for years, with the price tag as high as $1 million at one point, according to neighbors. Primeau is buying it for $250,000. His company, Philip Ryan Homes Ltd., is also behind a proposed 43-unit development on Middle Road just east of South County Trail (across from Pine Glen) as well as Fry Brook, a condominium complex off Middle Road just west of South County Trail. Fry Brook was largely completed in 2009 but Primeau still has not built a culvert that was part of the plan. He was before the Town Council in July seeking another extension – finishing the culvert has been tied to permission to build the 43 units on Middle Road. Primeau said the culvert would be done by the end of September and the council granted him an extension.
In an interview, Primeau blamed the poor economy for his failure to complete the Fry Brook culvert, but also placed responsibility with the town.
“The development was done. The houses were built, the roads were paved, the people were happy,” he said. “It wasn’t the right time to take care of it. If the town wanted to do it so bad, they could have pulled the performance bond,” he said. “Now, they have a culvert that’s going to be 10 years newer.”
Primeau said he’s not building single family homes on the South Pierce Road site because the market isn’t calling for single family homes in that area.
“We don’t think that’s the market. We think the market’s more for young professionals and that type of buyer more than single family homes,” he said, noting that the land was “on the cusp, on the outlying edges of a single family neighborhood…. It’s in a transitional area.”
As for neighbor complaints, Primeau said that’s part of the process when you’re a developer.
“They don’t want it developed. Everybody thinks they own it when they don’t. There’s going to be screening and landscaping. We’re providing affordable housing for the community. We’re providing tasteful moderate income housing.”
The Planning Board won’t resume the Coggeshall Homes public hearing until on Wednesday, Sept. 20. The panel meets next on Wednesday, Aug. 16, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall, and on that agenda is Final Plan Review of Tom Primeau’s Middle Road development. Find the agenda here.
– Elizabeth F. McNamara