Mayor Joseph Solomon’s efforts to ensure a vacant school is converted into a community resource and, in the process, generate revenue for the city hit a snag Tuesday night when the Zoning Board of Review tabled a special use permit allowing Westbay Community Action to relocate most of its offices from Buttonwoods Plaza to the former Randall Holden School.
Zoning Board member George Shuster made the motion to table the petition after neighbors voiced concerns that Westbay operations would increase traffic and decrease their property values. There were suggestions that the building be demolished and that the property be converted into a park. Many complained they had not been notified of the proposal.
As of Wednesday, the board had not scheduled a time to act on the petition and there was talk of an additional neighborhood informational meeting to further discuss the Westbay proposal.
Despite assurances that the Westbay lease would restrict hours of operations and building usages, there is underlying neighborhood distrust as evidenced in comments made to the Beacon.
In an open letter to Mayor Joseph Solomon, 23-year-old college student Kaylee Lemieux writes, “I am all for helping people, but not at the risk of my own safety and not at the risk of never being able to sell my home. Help move and secure a long-term lease for WBCA, but not in my backyard.” She raises the prospect of increased cut-through traffic between Airport Road and Warwick Avenue.
“You don’t live in the Hoxsie neighborhood, so you wouldn’t care to know,” she writes.
She also complains of increased taxes.
“Many Warwick taxpayers work more than one job just to make ends meet. Why have our property taxes steadily increased tenfold only to have our property values drastically diminish?”
Solomon said Wednesday morning he had not seen the letter but defended the process of the zoning board hearing and an information hearing held this summer after the proposed move became news.
“That's why we have the public meetings and that's why we have the zoning meeting. That's why we have the negotiations, to take into account what was brought up at those meetings. I know there was an apprehension that this was going to be an overnight stay facility or a tent facility or a drug rehab facility, and that was totally false. Whoever was disseminating that information, I think Mr. [Paul] Salera [Westbay executive director] confirmed what in fact they do and what they are going to do.”
Reached Wednesday, Salera said he remains interested in relocating to the school and he is in agreement with proposed stipulations on the lease.
During the meeting, he said the school would house the offices currently held at Buttonwoods and they do not include rehab facilities or a shelter. He also said the school auditorium, play fields and all-purpose room would be made available for community uses.
In an email, neighbor Jeanna Lavault, who attended the meeting, said, “Most people took a minute or two to address their concerns. The main concerns people had were increased traffic, decreased home values after our taxes were just recently raised, decreased safety of the very many children who play and ride bikes on the streets surrounding the building, etc. There were many concerns. It’s quite simple; this type [or any type of business] does not belong in the center of a nice and quiet neighborhood. It’s not fair to those of us who live here.”
In its report to the board, the planning department compared school operations and traffic to what it witnessed at the Westbay Buttonwoods offices. They found that Westbay employs approximately 40 staff members, most of whom are case managers who provide off-site services and that 85 percent of Westbay clients are helped in their homes, thereby reducing parking demands.
“The department has made multiple observations at Westbay’s current location on Buttonwoods Avenue and noted the very low volume of vehicles visiting the facility. At any time it is estimated that an 11 a.m Wednesday 10/2/2019 maximum of 15-20 staff will be present on-site with a peak maximum of 10-15 clients visiting per hour. However, as measured on September 30, 2019 WBCA staff observed a maximum of 45 cars visiting between 8:30 and 4:30 p.m.; 30 of which were definitively identified as WBCA clients; averaging between 3 to 6 trips per hour.”
Planners recommended, should the board approve the petition, it include the following stipulations:
1. That all parking will be on the subject property with no on-street parking. WBCA will be responsible to monitor their staff and clients to ensure compliance with this stipulation and shall take active measures to correct any violations.
2.That overnight use or occupancy of the building by Westbay Community Action, Inc. is strictly prohibited.
3.That the property will not be used for overnight stays, as housing or shelter facility nor as a medical clinic or medical treatment dispensary of any kind.
4.That all proposed signage shall be non-illuminated.
5.Substantial compliance with the plans and testimony provided.
Asked whether a lease has been finalized and what the city could expect to receive in payments, Solomon said, “When I feel it's [the lease] completed or significantly completed, it will be before the council and the council will vote on whether to allow me to execute the lease. If they do, I will enter that agreement. If they don't, we will try to preserve the building that is there. Secure it and preserve it until someone else comes forward. But that's the process.”