Planning Board Votes Down 13-Unit So. Pierce Road Proposal

by | Mar 8, 2018

The historic farmhouse on the McKenna property.

The decision comes after six hearings on the plan; abutters are pleased but developer says he will appeal to state housing board.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

In the end, developer Tom Primeau wouldn’t further drop the number of units for his proposed “Coggeshall Preserve” on South Pierce Road so after months of hearings, the Planning Board Wednesday night denied the project, saying the project was too dense, not compatible with the neighborhood, had unknown environmental impacts and crowded the historic – if dilapidated – farmhouse on the property.

Primeau said Thursday he will appeal the decision to the State Housing Appeals Board (SHAB).

“A project of such a small magnitude, it’s going to be hard for the state housing board to deny it, especially after we show the lengths we went to,” he said, noting the drop in the number of units, his willingness to clean up what had been used as a private dump and the decision to save the exterior of the historic house.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to your typical NIMBY-ism.”

Neighbors had, in fact, fought the development from the beginning. Many attended all six of the hearings on the project, staying even until midnight on a couple of occasions. After the Planning Board’s vote Wednesday, several expressed satisfaction with the outcome.

“I’m very pleased and I’m glad that the whole board seemed to see it that way too,” said Wayne Savageau, whose house on Taylor Circle abuts the McKenna property. Two buildings in the proposal were sited very close to his property line.

“We think the board has done an excellent job of due diligence,” said Pam Savageau, Wayne’s wife.

“They listened to a lot of the points we made,” added Wayne. “Whichever way it went, they have been very thorough.”

“We’re hopeful but we’re sure that he’s going to appeal it, and that’s going to just drag everything out a lot longer,” said Mallory Walsh, who lives on nearby Power Street.

Primeau had originally sought to build 21 units in duplexes and triplexes on what’s known as the McKenna property on the corner of South Pierce Road and Cora Street, in a neighborhood of largely modest, one-story houses. Over the course of the hearings, he dropped that number to 13 units but that was still well beyond the 8 units deemed appropriate for the lot under residential zoning guidelines (which would be a density bonus of 5 units since the property “by right” would allow only 3 units).

The developer came to the Planning Board looking for a “comprehensive permit,” which can be sought when a development includes a higher number of affordable units than the mandated 10 percent. It fast-tracks the process to encourage developers to build more affordable housing, allowing a project to bypass the Zoning Board and the Town Council and, in this case, the Historic District Commission, with final approval resting with the Planning Board alone.

This property does have challenges when it comes to development.

First, the house on the property is in extremely bad shape but, as one of the oldest houses in Kent County, it retains historic significance. Primeau originally proposed tearing it down and building a structure that would look similar. When the HDC gave an advisory opinion in opposition to that plan, Primeau came back with a new plan that would essentially gut the interior of the building but would retain as much of the exterior of the building as possible, as well as rebuild the chimney, which is of singular historic importance.

In addition, the McKennas had operated a private dump on the 4.6 acre property for decades and it’s unclear what environmental hazards will be found on the site. And, finally, there is a pond on the site and much of the property sits in the floodplain. In his proposal, Primeau said he would work with state agencies to mitigate the environmental issues, including raising the grade in spots if necessary.

He said Thursday all of that work would be costly and awarding a density bonus for the project was appropriate.

“To ask for a few units more for all of that is an incredibly reasonable request,” he said.

“We feel like we followed the law,” said Planning Board Chairman Mike Donegan. “That’s what we tried very hard to do. We had many hearings on this, we took a lot of evidence. We think that we considered all the statutory and local requirements and presented a decision that follows all of that.”

Town officials acknowledge that SHAB usually rules in favor of the developer – the board was designed to favor affordable housing. That’s because most municipalities do not have the requisite 10 percent of their housing stock deemed affordable (*for explanation about affordable, see footnote). East Greenwich’s affordable housing percentage sits at 4.6, which could give Primeau leverage in the appeal.

But Donegan said the town’s Comprehensive Plan (a formal document that acts like a blueprint for the town in terms of future development and was approved by the state) outlines other areas in town for affordable housing and that the McKenna property was not on that map.

“We have recited in the decision all the applications, the number of units we have so far, our record of approving all the comp permits [up to now]. We think we’ll hit our numbers anyway, without approving something that isn’t otherwise approvable,” he said.

Primeau said he was confident in winning the appeal because the Planning Board’s decision “is not supported by the weight of evidence in the record.”

Andrew Teitz, the lawyer for the Planning Board, disagreed with that analysis, noting that typically in cases like this, the developer puts forth a lot of evidence and those in opposition (usually abutters) don’t put up any.

In this case, he said, “you had several of the experts put forth by the neighbors at their own expertise.”

He added, “I think there is much more information in this case in support of the denial then there usually is.”

This would be the first such comprehensive permit appeal for the town. That’s because it’s the first time the Planning Board has denied a comp permit. In his experience, Teitz said, the appeal process could take between one and two years.

  • 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.

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David Caldwell
David Caldwell
March 9, 2018 6:45 am

Thanks for this thorough, evenhanded coverage, presenting all sides of what is obviously a contentious issue in a way that’s comprehensible.

March 9, 2018 9:28 am

The state mandate for every municipality to achieve a 10% minimum affordable housing threshold is simply a target and a goal, it has no penalties for failure to attain that level. If the law and the calculation used to measure success were founded in altruism I would support it but it is not. The state does not even count trailer parks in the %, thus a town could have 20% of their housing stock in affordable trailer park housing but the state could still consider the town short of their goal. The mandate legislation was pushed by the builders association as a means to achieve more development and profit for their membership. The fact that the law allows a developer to fast-track the process to allow developers to build more, allowing a project to bypass the Zoning Board and the Town Council and, in this case, the Historic District Commission proves the favorable nature for developers. This project would barely move the needle in increasing the affordable housing stock in town yet the developer can use it as a wedge to push a neighborhood disrupting plan through the process. It is not “NIMBY-ism” as Mr. Primeau stated, it is defending one’s property rights. That is why we have zoning laws in the first place. The resistance had nothing to do with the fact that there would be an affordable home built in the neighborhood, rather the resistance was against forcing an over-sized and overly dense project in an established single home neighborhood using the guise of affordable housing to fast track the exceptions to the rules.


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