City Council Chambers were as quiet as a courtroom Tuesday night for the latest chapter in the efforts of PRW Holdings LLC to convert a portion of the Pond View Plaza on Post Road into a 630-unit self-storage facility overlooking Sand Pond.
The more than three-hour hearing before the Zoning Board of Review on a special use permit included more expert testimony on behalf of PRW that the development would actually improve pond water quality.
It also included opening arguments by the Sand Pond Coalition that the development would be inconsistent with the character of the neighborhood and a detriment to the pond, which Peter Friedrichs, a planner for the city of Newport and an expert for the coalition, termed a “precious water resource.”
In a trial-like manner – and establishing a record that would likely be used in the event whatever action the board takes is appealed in Superior Court – attorneys for both parties extensively questioned experts, seeking to discredit their testimony as well as periodically objecting as experts testified.
While attorney John Mancini handled the presentation on behalf of PRW and cross-examined Friedrichs, state Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi, who is also on the PRW legal team, objected during Friedrichs’ testimony to his use of “open space” to describe the site. Shekarchi corrected that the property is zoned for commercial use and that the petitioner is seeking a special exception of parking regulations for the three-story structure.
In her opening statement, Marisa Desautel, attorney for the coalition, objected to the applicant’s “last-minute submission of materials.”
“The applicant would have you consider its project in the context of their property rights and their business plan. I don’t know the applicant personally, but I have no doubt that they would run a good business. But this matter is not about whether a good business can be run on this property,” she said.
Desautel, who said she has 20 years of experience as an environmental scientist and attorney, identified the issue as environmental protection. Citing deed restrictions, she reasoned the property could not be developed for a self-storage unit.
Also, in her opening statement, Desautel referenced conditions applying to a special use permit, saying that the applicant hadn’t met the standards – and, in particular, the provision that “a permit will not alter the general character of the surrounding area or impair the intent or purpose of this ordinance or the comprehensive plan of the city.”
She said testimony would describe the unique nature of Sand Pond as one of only three of its kind in the state as well as the risks associated with a self-storage facility, including the potential that units could contain hazardous materials that if released or spilled could reach the pond.
Experts for PRW, which lists Charles Anderson as its principal, went to lengths to discredit visual renderings of how the facility would appear if built. They argued that for it to dominate the view, as suggested, it would have to be 85 feet tall to tower above the nearest highest tree, which they put at 55 feet. The section of the building visible from across the pond would be 38 feet high, they said.
Images based on their projections were provided the board.
Landscape architect John Carter also described modifications to the initial plan that would convert a section of the parking lot into a grassy strip along a retaining wall facing the residential neighborhood. Twelve- and 15-foot-tall evergreen trees would be planted in the area to screen the view of the unit.
Audie Osgood of DiPrete Engineering reviewed the storm drainage system, concluding that between a reduction in the impervious parking area and improved systems over what is there today, the pond would benefit.
Ward 3 Councilman Timothy Howe attempted to testify, but Mancini promptly objected on the grounds that the City Council approves appointments to the zoning board. The board upheld his objection.
Alisa Richardson, a resident of the area who has been involved with the movement to stop the development from the beginning, testified about water quality and the potential harm pesticides, which might be stored in the units, could have on the pond. Richardson, a former stormwater permitting authority from RIDEM, is a consultant with Sweetwater Missions.
The board ceased hearing testimony at about 10:15 p.m. It will resume at a date and time to be selected.
This was the fourth hearing over the proposed development. In September 2017, the Planning Board found the project was not consistent with the comprehensive master plan. The zoning board overturned that ruling, clearing the way for the applicant to seek the special use permit that is now under consideration.