Controversial Baccari-town negotiations on hold awaiting court decisions

Controversial Baccari-town negotiations on hold awaiting court decisions

SMITHFIELD - After taking considerable heat for holding closed meetings on a proposed development at Putnam Pike and Esmond Street, the Town Council on Nov. 19 defended its position, went into closed session again - and agreed to pull the project off the table until a court decides whether developer Richard Baccari and his firm, Churchill & Banks, are guilty of bribery and conspiracy.

The company and Baccari, its chief executive officer, are under indictment for allegedly paying off three members of the North Providence Town Council for a zoning change.

The former councilors are serving prison terms in connection with the case, which has produced even further distrust of the company from Esmond residents who for years have fought its various plans to develop 29 acres in their neighborhood.

Baccari, 71, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he and the company made a $50,000 payoff in exchange for the right to build a supermarket.

Under its current Smithfield proposal, the firm is seeking a zone change to construct a mixed-used "village" of commercial and residential units.

At the same time, Churchill & Banks has filed two lawsuits against the town related to the defeat of previous plans for the property, near the Route 295 interchanges.

Earlier this year the company offered to drop the litigation if the council agreed to approve the village plan.

But the council wanted the project scaled down, and in its series of closed meetings, which included neither the company nor the public, attempted to come up with a compromise, smaller version.

Churchill & Banks reportedly balked at the proposed changes.

According to Town Solicitor Edmund L. Alves Jr., the council took no formal vote at the final closed session, but agreed by consensus to await results of the trial before proceeding further.

Alves said it is still unclear what effect, if any, a guilty verdict would have on the Churchill & Banks plan for Smithfield.

But, he said, it's best for the council to steer clear of more deliberations on the matter, to avoid any hint that the criminal charges, although not yet proven, might cloud its judgment.

Alves noted that Baccari has filed for a speedy trial, which would require a verdict within 70 days after preliminary motions are addressed.

At its Nov. 19 meeting, former town councilman Richard Poirier urged the council to stop consideration of the plan, contending that one of the Churchill & Banks lawsuits, which names Councilwoman Maxine Cavanagh, was filed specifically to knock Cavanagh out of the deliberations.

Alves has advised her against participating in the talks, since, in view of the lawsuit, her impartiality might be questioned. Churchill & Banks contends in its court filing that Cavanagh conspired with three members of the Planning Board against one of its previous plans, a charge she denies. Poirier said he considers the lawsuit a means of keeping Cavanagh and her probing questions out of the mix, and that in seeking to win a zone change in exchange for dropping the litigation, the developer "is extorting the Town Council."

He termed the legal action a "SLAPP" suit - a "strategic lawsuit against public participation" whose purpose is to intimidate potential critics.

George Palazio, president of Esmond Concerned Citizens, a group long opposed to Churchill & Banks proposals for the area, said, "I believe this woman is innocent of what she has been accused of, and she's being held hostage."

The council took criticism for holding its talks behind closed doors.

Donald Brown, vice chairman of the Conservation Commission and a former councilman, objected to the formulation of a plan in private "that might be favorable to Churchill & Banks."

He said, "This is being hidden from some who have a dire interest in it."

Denis Rivard, an opponent of the development plan, noted that previous administrations have rejected company proposals, and asked, "Why would this Town Council roll over and all of a sudden bring them back to life?"

But council members from both political parties defended the closed talks, saying they were held on the advice of Alves and were permitted because meetings involving litigation are exempt from the provisions of the state's Open Meetings Law.

Republican Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr. said the company under current zoning has a right to develop the land in some fashion and "We have the right to sit down and do the best we can for the Town of Smithfield SLps We either have a seat at the table or we don't. If we don't have the right to make the best out of a bad situation, then what am I doing here?"

Democrat Suzanna Alba said she feels the council's actions have been transparent because community forums have been held on the issue, she has discussed it with area residents, and the council has followed legal advice even though "I don't feel comfortable that we're in closed meetings."

Alba said that the council itself has not prevented Cavanagh, a member of the Republican majority, from attending the closed sessions, and that while Alves has advised against her attendance, the choice to sit out has nonetheless been Cavanagh's.

Alves responded that in his view Cavanagh has no choice.

Any eventual decision on the Churchill & Banks plan will be made in public, Alba said.