Council drafts development plan for Churchill & Banks

Council drafts development plan for Churchill & Banks

Secret plan settles lawsuits by allowing scaled-back residences, hotel, shops and offices on 29 acres off Putnam Pike

SMITHFIELD - Meeting in two closed sessions, the Town Council has drafted a still-confidential proposal that would allow developer Churchill & Banks to build a mixed-use housing and commercial "village" at Putnam Pike and Esmond Street.

Because the developer has filed still-pending lawsuits against the town over rejection of a previous plan for the 29-acre site near the Route 295 interchange, council members declined this week to discuss what appears to be a move toward ending the court actions and allowing the firm to proceed with a scaled-down plan.

In holding the talks behind closed doors, the council cited an exemption from the state's Open Meetings Law when litigation is being discussed.

According to a "confidential draft" of a proposed zoning change obtained by The Valley Breeze & Observer, the council seeks a reduction in the number of requested residential units from 160 to 124, and an increase in the number of affordable units - which could be built at a different location - from eight to 25.

The proposal also cuts down on the amount of square footage the developer originally requested for a hotel and for retail and office space, and also would allow some, but not all, of the diverse property uses the developer had requested.

The 100-room hotel, once planned for 80,000 square feet, would still be allowed four stories, but could not exceed 54,000 square feet of total floor space. Retail, for which the developer originally sought 150,000 square feet, would be capped at 30,900 square feet, and buildings other than the hotel would be restricted to a maximum of three stories.

A condition of the zoning change would be the dropping of "all pending litigation."

Despite the proposed scaling-down of the project, the council's draft - if it eventually wins majority support - indicates a major shift in philosophy, because the previous council in 2010 rejected a "village" concept for the property.

After the rejection, Churchill & Banks went to the Planning Board with a different proposal calling for office and commercial space, but no housing. Because no zoning change was needed for that plan, the Town Council was not involved, but the planning agency rejected it.

This time around, the decision is the Town Council's to make.

Town Solicitor Edmund L. Alves Jr. confirmed that a compromise proposal has been sent to the developer, but cautioned that various versions of it were created over time and that the newspaper's unauthorized copy might not be identical to the one sent to Churchill & Banks.

At any rate, he said, the newspaper's version would be similar and reflective of council sentiment for some significant reductions in density.

Alves said the hope is for an agreement that would end more than a decade of legal wrangling over how the wooded parcel should be developed.

He said Churchill & Banks, under current zoning, has a right to develop the land in some fashion, but added, "Do the courts decide or should the governing body of the town have input?"

The council is concerned that the developer may eventually win court decisions that allow it to proceed without having to negotiate terms with local officials.

Churchill & Banks has filed two suits, one against the Zoning Board of Review for upholding the Planning Board's rejection of the commercial-only development plan, and another against three members of the Planning Board and Town Councilwoman Maxine Cavanagh for allegedly conspiring in private against the plan, which called for office and retail use but no residential units.

After the Planning Board's rejection of that project, Churchill & Banks earlier this year asked the Town Council to re-consider a "village" plan including commercial units and housing. The proposal has drawn vocal opposition from neighboring residents who say it will cause a traffic nightmare and reduce their quality of life.

The council has not formally acted on the draft proposal, and it's still unclear how an official vote would go if the developer accepts its terms.

Efforts to reach Churchill & Banks for reaction were unsuccessful.

Cavanagh has recused herself from participation in the case because she is named in the lawsuit, so the four other council members will decide the issue. The plan is believed to have at least two supporting votes and possibly more. Three would be needed, since a tie vote means rejection.

Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr. said he was not authorized to comment on specifics of the council's closed-door discussions, but did say that the objective - in view of controversy surrounding the project and the pending litigation - was "to make a bad situation not so bad."

He said it's unclear right now whether a majority would support the zoning change if the developer were to accept the stipulations.

The draft proposal would re-zone the property as Churchill & Banks asked, from its current mix of Commercial and Planned Development to all Planned Development, permitting the mix of residential and commercial uses.

The draft proposal allows three points of entrance or egress as the developer had proposed, with details to be approved by the Planning Board and by the State Department of Transportation where any of its regulations apply. Two of the access points are planned for Esmond Street and the other for Putnam Pike.

In addition to allowing hotel, retail, and office uses, the council's proposal would permit a day-care center; bank with or without drive-up service; catering establishments; research and development firms up to 4,000 square feet; and commercial off-street parking.

That appears to eliminate other potential uses sought by Churchill & Banks, including for nursing homes, hospitals, schools, health service facilities, medical and dental offices, conference centers, theaters, and restaurants that have drive-up facilities.

Many of those uses, while currently permitted in Planned Development zones, currently need Zoning Board approval in the form of special use permits.

Churchill & Banks had asked the council to allow the additional uses "by right," that is, with no requirement for a Zoning Board vote.

If the council were to approve the rezoning, the development plan would still need review by the Planning Board to make sure it complies with local codes and regulations.

But the board's authority to alter any major provisions contained in the Town Council's zoning change language would be limited, according to Board Chairman James W. Archer.