Zoners uphold appeal, but Pond Plaza battle isn't over
It all came down to the facts, or the lack of them, Tuesday night.
The Zoning Board of Review didn’t find there were enough facts to uphold the Planning Board’s decision of last September that the plan of PRW Holdings, LLC to build a three-story self-storage unit at Pond Plaza in Norwood is inconsistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.
The 4-1 vote seemed like a loss for the Norwood neighbors who turned out in force, but because of the appeal nature of proceedings were not permitted to present new evidence or arguments that the development would be a deterrent.
Yet, had the board denied the appeal, PRW Holdings, LLC would have likely appealed to Superior Court, setting up a legal battle the neighborhood is not prepared to take on. As it is now, however, PRW must come before the zoning board for two special use permits and the Planning Board for preliminary plan approval before moving ahead with its plan.
PRW will need special use permits for the self-storage, more than one use on the property as well as relief from parking requirements. If those special uses are granted, the proposal would come before the Planning Board for its approval. Both are public hearings where residents will have the opportunity to present testimony and evidence why the development would not be compatible to the neighborhood.
Going into the Planning Board hearing for master plan approval last September, it seemed Charles Anderson of PRW had all his ducks in a row for a swift approval of the 630-unit self-storage facility to be built at that end of the plaza that is currently a childcare operation. The Planning Department found the proposal complied with zoning and the comprehensive plan.
The residents convinced the Planning Board otherwise, citing concerns over the hours of operation, ecological impact on Sand Pond and visual impact of a three-story structure. Departing from the advisory position of the planning staff, the board found the proposal “inconsistent” with the city’s comprehensive plan. At Tuesday’s appeal, City Planner William DePasquale supported the board’s action, saying the board listened to the testimony of the people. He supported the finding that the proposed development is inconsistent because it represents a 30 percent increase in the size of the current plaza and 120 feet closer to the neighboring residents.
“It has to be right-sized for the community,” DePasquale maintained.
K. Joseph Shekarchi and John Mancini, attorneys for PRW, refuted the Planning Board’s decision, saying it was in error and lacked facts. Shekarchi said opponents to the plan offered no expert testimony; that the proposed height of the development is allowed by code; and that information circulated on social media about hours of operation, potential criminal activity, increased traffic and hazardous waste are false. Shekarchi said the development would be a plus for the city as it would generate additional tax revenues without the burden of more school-aged children or police and fire services.
Mancini said in considering the appeal the Zoning Board must weigh the Planning Board’s finding on the basis of the evidence of record. He said the Planning Board’s decision “was not only illogical but illegal…it doesn’t follow the statutory scheme.” He said the decision was subjective when it should have been grounded in the law.
Zoning Board member Mark McKenney, who acted as chair as Donald Morash recused himself, kept a tight lid on the meeting. Using a gavel, he silenced the applause of the audience reminding them this was a legal proceeding. He paid no heed to the retort, “We’re in a public chamber.”
Alisa Richardson, the only member of the community to testify before the board, cited her expertise as a professional engineer, pointing out that claims the development would improve pond water quality is a “half truth.”
When it came time to vote, City Solicitor Peter Ruggiero pointed out members, whether voting to uphold or deny the appeal, should recognize that their reasoning either way would become part of the record. Yet, he added, “You can’t substitute your judgment. You have to look at the record.”
“I don’t see an evidence from the Planning Board that substantiates their finding,” said board member Everett O’Donnell.
On the other hand, member Ted Sarno, the single vote to reject the appeal, pointed out while the Planning Board’s written decision lacked specifics, the testimony of the September hearing was clear that the proposed development was inconsistent with the neighborhood.
“I wish it had been more complete,” said George Shuster of the planning decision. Shuster’s appointment to the board was confirmed by the City Council the night before.
“What’s missing is the facts,” said McKenney before calling for a vote.
In the hallway to council chambers, Norwood residents gathered to consider their next course of action. They are already talking of the next round on meetings, although they haven’t been scheduled yet.