The East Greenwich Town Council denied a request by neighboring West Greenwich to delay moving forward on a zone change application, making for a testy hearing this week. The head of the West Greenwich Planning Board objected to the zone change, saying East Greenwich was subverting its own comprehensive plan and arguing that West Greenwich did not get ample notice of a change of use for a parcel of land just 600 feet from its border. In a 3-2 vote, the Town Council closed the public hearing, with Republican councilors Michael Isaacs, Sue Cienki and Sean Todd voting in favor of closing the hearing and Democratic councilors Mark Schwager and Bill Stone voting against.
The 6-acre parcel in question borders West Greenwich and is only accessible from New England Turnpike in WG. It is currently zoned farm but has been designated, along with about 84 abutting acres, in the town’s latest Comprehensive Plan as high-density residential mixed use. The idea behind that change was to make it desirable for a developer to build there and add to the number of affordable housing units in East Greenwich. The state requires that cities and towns have at least 10 percent of their housing deemed “affordable.” EG currently is at about 4.3 percent. The Comp Plan was passed in April 2014 and the town has until 2024 to update zoning to model what’s laid out in the plan.
So, how could a construction company hope to use the land under that zoning designation, since Ross Construction plans an industrial use for the property?
It’s complicated but the argument Ross is making – through lawyer (and Warwick state rep) Joe Shekarchi – is that the construction facility would be set apart from the rest of the acreage and there would be plenty of buffer.
The Planning Board granted master plan approval to Ross in September 2014. Members discussed the fact that Ross’s planned use of the land was in violation of the town’s brand new Comprehensive Plan, but ultimately decided that there was enough land overall in that zone (the other 84 acres) to satisfy the Comp Plan’s housing requirement so an amendment was not needed. It also recognized that the Ross parcel, located as it is right next to Route 95, was not likely to be used to place a coffee shop, say, or other retail venture commensurate with the zoning.
That’s how we get to Monday night’s hearing before the Town Council. The council heard the first reading at its meeting Feb. 12. First readings introduce applications. Second readings include a public hearing and that took place Monday. Second reading is the only time public testimony is typically allowed.
West Greenwich Planning Board Chairman Brad Ward took exception to the application during the hearing, going so far as to shout from his seat in the audience at Swift Community Center, “West Greenwich is here and we do object!” after Shekarchi suggested problems with West Greenwich had been ironed out.
West Greenwich’s assistant town solicitor, Amy Goins, said they had not received notice about the Master Plan hearing before the Planning Board last September. She said the proposed use “appeared inconsistent with East Greenwich’s Comprehensive Plan” and she requested a delay while the town evaluated legal options with respect to the master plan approval.
“We certainly have no objection if all access to this property is through East Greenwich. Just give us our buffer and we’ll see you later,” said Ward when he addressed the council from the podium. The access, however, would be via New London Turnpike in West Greenwich. In fact, the project requires state Department of Transportation approval for an easement since DOT owns the land between New London Turnpike and the Ross parcel.
Ward said the use would be a nuisance to West Greenwich and that West Greenwich town councilors would field the phone calls from angry residents about any noise or light complaints since the residents would be from West Greenwich.
“I would implore this council to delay this action,” said Ward. “You are putting a burden onto the town that is potentially rather onerous.”
East Greenwich Council President Isaacs, however, was not swayed in his desire to close the hearing and move the application to third reading.
“It seems to me this really is a good project for our town. From what I’ve seen and heard … I don’t thing this will create problems for our neighboring Town Council in West Greenwich. We have a low business tax number in this town. This would bring a business to town,” he said, adding, “I don’t think we need to have any further delay or continuation.”
Councilman Stone, while he approved of the plan for the property, said, “I am concerned [West Greenwich hasn’t] had the opportunity to go through the motions that East Greenwich has gone through.”
Councilman Schwager also expressed approval of the plan itself, but wanted to let West Greenwich weigh in, noting that if the situation was reversed, East Greenwich would want that opportunity.
Isaacs countered that the West Greenwich officials would have an opportunity to address the council with their concerns at third reading, even though third reading is not a public hearing and is usually reserved for discussion among council members. Town Solicitor Peter Clarkin affirmed Isaacs’ plan, saying the council had closed public comment before but still accommodated people.
After the meeting, Isaacs explained his vote: “I felt there was still time to consider this and nothing says, if there are pertinent issues raised, that we have to vote on third reading. That reading could be continued. So there is a process. That’s why I voted the way I did.”
He guaranteed the council would allow more public comment at third reading.
“We will hear more about this at third reading. It’s a guarantee because I said it and it’s a guarantee. We’re not rigid about third reading,” he said. “I want to respect West Greenwich. I want to have a good relationship with them. I want to hear their concerns,” said Isaacs. “I think that we provided that opportunity and yet we could still move the project forward.”
Third reading is scheduled for the Town Council meeting on April 13.
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