Public hearing on Smithfield 'corporate corridor' coming April 29

Public hearing on Smithfield 'corporate corridor' coming April 29

SMITHFIELD - An emotional zoning issue affecting the future of the town's "corporate corridor" along Routes 7 and 116 will be debated at a public workshop the Town Council has scheduled for 7 p.m. April 29.

Restrictive zoning that largely limits development in the Planned Corporate District - encompassing some 1,900 acres - to offices has already produced a lawsuit against the town.

A group of landowners in the district say the zoning restrictions deprive them of full use of their property and prevents the development of retail stores, services, and housing that provide diversity.

Last June they began working with Keith W. Stokes, former director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp., to develop an "overlay" zoning plan that would retain the Planned Corporate zoning, but would expand the list of enterprises allowed in some parts of it.

The plan would permit uses including retail, restaurants and housing, with restrictions on their maximum size, as "by-right" uses - meaning they would be allowed without the need for a special use permit from the Zoning Board of Review.

Among the sought-after uses are restaurants up to 5,000 square feet per building, theaters and retail up to 20,000 square feet, hotels up to 120 guest rooms, indoor sports facilities up to 40,000 square feet, and multi-household dwelling structures of up to 32 units.

In some cases where the enterprises are part of related developments, sizes could be increased by special use permit from the Zoning Board.

Among other permitted uses would be medical or dental offices, schools, day care centers, hospitals or other health care facilities, banks, laundries or dry cleaners, fitness centers, and conference centers

Stokes, who is associated with the Mayforth Group, a government-relations consultant, has said that while big-box stores and strip malls are to be avoided, the area is in need of small and large businesses that would fill the needs of employees in the corporate area.

The existing zoning produced an emotional split on the Town Council that adopted it four years ago.

The 3-2 vote, with the Republican majority in favor, resulted in a still-pending lawsuit filed by Jackson Despres, of the 70-acre Smithfield Peat Co., a major landowner in the area.

He contended that the re-zoning would slash the value of his property by 70 percent, render it unmarketable for future development, and was in essence a land grab by the town to satisfy the nearby financial giant Fidelity Investments, which has favored restrictive corporate zoning.

Republican Councilman Ronald Manni, who was council president at the time, argued that the town's economic future hinges in large measure on a corporate zone attractive to firms that would widen the community's tax base.

Despres has long contended that in today's economy there is little demand for office space and that much of the zone is lying idle while property owners there are unable to sell their land for other purposes.

The April 29 workshop will be held in Town Hall.