By JOHN HOWELL After nearly four years, lengthy hearings before two city boards, and fundraising events that coalesced the neighborhood in its purpose, the Planning Board found last Wednesday night that a 630-unit self-storage facility is too intense of
After nearly four years, lengthy hearings before two city boards, and fundraising events that coalesced the neighborhood in its purpose, the Planning Board found last Wednesday night that a 630-unit self-storage facility is too intense of a development for Pond Plaza on Post Road.
On a motion made by member Valerie Bataille, the board voted 5-2 to deny PRW Holding preliminary approval of the project that calls for partial demolition of the shopping plaza with a three-story addition over looking Sand Pond. But the citizens’ victory appears to be just another battle in the war.
John Mancini, attorney for PRW Holding LLC of Saunderstown and the owner Cenicor LLC that uses the Pond Plaza address, expected Friday to appeal the Planning Board decision to the Zoning Board of Review. Having come this far in the design of the facility and having retained numerous experts to support their case and counter arguments of the residents, Mancini sees them as “committed” to the project. He sees the residents being just as committed. Neither side is backing off.
The developer argues they propose a “state of the art” self-storage facility that would have minimal impact on traffic compared with other developments, improve storm water runoff into the pond and, with extensive landscaping, be non-intrusive to residents living on the pond.
That’s not what residents envision. Despite landscaping and the planting of evergreens to hide the structure, they say the 38-foot high building would be a scar on the environment. They fear chemicals stored in the units such as garden fertilizers, cleaning agents and paint, although not permitted under the terms of leases, would find their way into the pond.
This face-off has had its legal skirmishes and its calls to arms dating back to August 2017. In the first show of community unity, City Council Chambers were packed as the Planning Board considered whether the development master plan was consistent with the comprehensive plan. In its review, the planning staff recommended approval, but after listening to arguments from both sides, the board found it incompatible. It was a win for the neighbors. That was in September of 2017.
In May of 2018, PRW Holding appealed the ruling to the Zoning Board of Review. The neighbors girded for battle. “Save Sand Pond” signs popped up everywhere, even in communities far from Massasoit Terrace. A pond palooza that became an annual event with kayaks, paddle boards, swimming, food and music helped raise funds for legal representation. The mayor, council members and state representatives and senators were asked to join their ranks.
When the Zoning Board overturned the Planning Board, granting master plan approval, Save Sand Pond appealed the decision to the Superior Court, which is expected to render a decision within a couple of months. Should the neighbors win, Mancini said his clients would appeal to the Supreme Court.
The next step was for PRW to obtain a special use permit and variance on parking requirements from the Zoning Board.
Over three hearings, the last of which was held on July 24, 2019, the Zoning Board granted PRW a special use permit and a variance to parking that would reduce parking while enhancing the management of storm water. Among many conditions, the board also required the developer to enhance the building sprinkler system and landscaping to hide the structure.
In the latest round, even without a court ruling, the developer moved ahead for preliminary plan approval from the Planning Board. In this phase, the board reviews plan details and has the ability to recommend changes. Meetings extended over two nights, with the petitioners presenting testimony last month and the objectors outlining their arguments Wednesday.
Bataille based her opposition on her belief that the storage unit would be inconsistent with the city’s comprehensive plan and goals to preserve natural resources.
“It all comes down to the size and scale,” said board chair Phil Slocum. He said he may have supported a smaller self-storage facility, but as planned the site doesn’t support it. He said the development would have a severe negative impact on the quality of life. As proposed, the self-storage unit would be twice the height of the existing building with a footprint of 33,000 square feet. As the building would be three stories, it would contain nearly 100,000 square feet, making it the largest structure for a quarter mile north and south on Post Road.
Other board members agreed with Slocum. Board member Linda Polselli added that she feels the possibility of an accident in which chemicals possibly stored in the building spilled into the pond was too great a risk.
Preservation of the pond as a recreational resource, a place for wildlife and an aesthetic treasure of the community was the rallying cry of neighborhood opposition to the project.
“What goes in Sand Pond, stays in Sand Pond,” said Alisa Richardson, a former Department of Environmental Management employee who lives in the neighborhood and served as one of the opposition’s experts. While DEM approved PRW’s plan to handle storm water, which the developer argued would improve conditions as they currently exist, Richardson said DEM did not look at the potential of spills from chemicals in storage units. The developer argued unit lease agreements would forbid the storage of chemicals.
Richardson also argued the storage unit would be an industrial use next to residences that is contrary to the comprehensive plan. The plaza is zoned general business. Mancini points out the project had been granted a special exception and reduction in parking requirements by the Zoning Board of Review. It is not a change in zone.
Jane Allsworth saw no reason for the development of self-storage units next to the neighborhood, pointing out there are 18 self-storage facilities within a 10-mile radius of the proposed development.
A 43-year resident of the area, Lee Arnold said he is not anti-development, but this would endanger the quality of life. He said the proposed three-story building couldn’t be screened.
As the hearing progressed, Mancini referenced a rendering showing how the building would appear to those living on the pond. Dave Bouchard said he had no recollection of such a rendering. Other members of Save Sand Pond likewise didn’t recall a rendering. John Carter, landscape expert for PRW, produced a panoramic view of the pond looking at the development site in the summer. Foliage obscures most of the current building. Then from the same vantage is a rendering depicting what the self-storage unit would look like after screening evergreens have filled in. A thin line of gray shows the roofline above the trees.
Finding the rendering too hard to believe, resident Sean Dunn declared, “I’m not a lawyer, I’m not an engineer, but I’m not an idiot.”
Evidently the rendering didn’t dissuade the board, either.
Asked Friday why wouldn’t PRW reduce the size of the building – perhaps making it two instead of three stories – Mancini said by right the developer could build a “monstrosity” and what is proposed will have less of an impact than, say, and apartment building. As he sees it, “there’s no turning back.”
In an interview Saturday, Bouchard praised Slocum for giving the community the opportunity to be heard and for the manner in which he conduced the hearing. Bouchard said the neighbors still don’t know what the building will look like. He also emphasized the comprehensive plan is committed to having a city of livable neighborhoods.
“What did we do wrong to be put on the rack like this by Mancini and outside [of Warwick] families?” he asked. He accused the developer of seeking to “wear us down financially.”
Will it work?
“Sometimes the more you beat up a person, the more they want to fight,” he said.