Landowners seek flexibility in 'corporate corridor'

Landowners seek flexibility in 'corporate corridor'

SMITHFIELD - A group of property owners in the restrictively zoned "corporate corridor" along Routes 7 and 116 are working with Keith W. Stokes, former executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp., on a proposed master plan for the area that would relax some of the prohibitions on how they can use their land.

Their project revives an emotional issue that split a former Town Council three years ago, when it narrowly approved tighter zoning that critics said amounted to land-taking without compensation.

One business owner, Jackson Despres of the Smithfield Peat Co., sued the town in an action still pending, contending at the time, "What you are doing is confiscating all of our property."

Despres confirmed that an informal organization of area landowners has contracted with the Mayforth Group, a government-relations consultant with offices in Providence and Washington, to come up with a plan for more flexible zoning that would expand business uses in the area.

He has long contended that in today's economy, much of the 1,900 acres in that section of town, zoned largely for corporate offices, are lying idle because there is no demand for office space, while the owners are unable to market their land for other enterprises.

When the current Planned Corporate zoning was adopted in 2010 under a 3-2 council decision, the Republican majority on the Town Council argued that future corporate development there would be a revenue generator for the town.

But the discussions produced fiery clashes during a five-hour hearing at which Democratic Councilman Stephen Archambault - now Smithfield's state senator - excoriated the majority decision and said he hoped Despres would prevail in court.

Archambault argued that the council was acting recklessly in imposing the restrictions because it did not yet have the results of traffic and land use studies that would have provided guidance.

The issue is expected to be a hot-button item in the new year, because town officials are in the process of updating the municipal land-use plan.

Stokes, who resigned from the EDC last year after supporting the $75-million loan guarantee to Curt Shilling's eventually failed 38 Studios, is working with the local group in his role as Mayforth's president of strategic economic planning and development.

Holding a master's degree in public policy from the University of Chicago and a bachelor's degree in public policy and planning from Cornell University, he has long served as an advisor to public and private agencies on economic and community development.

Stokes said Mayforth has been using architectural and engineering firms to develop recommendations that would make the corporate corridor marketable under more flexible zoning.

He said it is already apparent that "big-box" stores and strip malls are to be avoided, but that the area is in need of businesses, both small and large, that would fill the needs of corporate employees, such as dry cleaners and restaurants.

The days of major development for single-use enterprises, such as the Fidelity Investments complex, appear to be numbered in favor of mixed-use projects, according to Stokes.

He said a coordinated plan involving the corporate corridor as an entity could ensure high construction standards and design compatibility throughout the zone, and could also include regulations to encourage "shovel ready" parcels attractive to business enterprises by minimizing bureaucratic red tape during the permitting process.

Stokes said the current Planned Corporate zoning could be retained, if the town approved "overlay" zoning that would allow flexibility within it.

Despres, whose business is recognizable by its high mulch piles along Route 7, said that 15 or 20 property owners joined together to hire Mayforth.

He has argued that while many existing businesses in the corporate zone are grandfathered, they cannot expand or sell to other interests because of the existing restrictions.

Stokes said Mayforth will present draft proposals to the owners' group for its approval, and that the resulting recommendations would then be brought to town officials, who will eventually air any proposed land-use changes at a public hearing.

Stokes said his group has already met with some local officials, including the town planner and the Smithfield Economic Development Commission, and that he believes there is room for agreement.