Recommended zone change could affect controversial proposed Churchill & Banks development

Recommended zone change could affect controversial proposed Churchill & Banks development

SMITHFIELD - A proposed land use plan for the town that could lead to significant restrictions on a controversial development in Esmond drew particular interest from that neighborhood at a public hearing April 24.

The plan recommends a zone change on much of the 29-acre project site, at Putnam Pike and Esmond Street, to R-20 residential. The change could eventually require developer Churchill & Banks to significantly scale down both of two alternate projects it has proposed for the land.

The developer last year filed a lawsuit challenging the town's denial of one of its plans, and if the action is successful, Churchill & Banks could presumably build that development under grandfather's rights, even if the zoning is changed.

But if the town prevails in court, the developer would be restricted under proposed new zoning to single-family house lots of about half an acre, except for a strip along Putnam Pike that would carry "village" zoning, allowing a mix of business and residential uses.

The recommended zone change - the property is currently zoned Commercial and Planned Development - is part of an updated Comprehensive Community Plan that will soon be sent from the Planning Board to the Town Council for approval. The plan establishes guidelines for land use in town over the next decade, and its provisions will set the tone for future zoning decisions.

The Planning Board, other town officials, and a private consultant have been working on the plan since 2012. The board has not yet put its stamp of approval on it, but is expected to do so soon and to send it to the council, which has final say on official adoption.

In addition to establishing guidelines on land use, the plan addresses municipal needs over the next decade, and proposes a variety of actions including expanding the police station and increasing police staffing, building a new north end fire station and increasing fire department staffing, development of more affordable housing, replacing the high school track, and buying the Greater Providence YMCA's 125-acre, forested Camp Shepard on Colwell Road.

At last week's public hearing before the Planning Board, several Esmond residents expressed concerns over quality of life in the area with future development.

Residents have opposed both of Churchill & Banks' proposals, asserting that they would create traffic nightmares and change the character of the surrounding neighborhoods.

At last week's hearing, George Palazio, president of Esmond Concerned Citizens, declared, "Esmond doesn't need more people and more business."

Planning Board Chairman James Archer responded, "The board is very mindful of that area," and said if the court rules in the town's favor the Churchill & Banks land will be subject to any new zoning.

After the meeting he said the board favors zoning that will keep development of the property consistent with the character of the surrounding residential area.

Churchill & Banks sued last year after the Planning Board rejected its application for a seven-building commercial park including two retail structures of 39,000 square feet each, but no housing.

After filing suit, Churchill & Banks told the Town Council it would drop the court action if the council agreed to reconsider a mixed-use "village" plan, rejected by a previous council in 2010, that included commercial units and multifamily housing.

The two sides squabbled, with the council wanting the plan scaled down.

Then, after Churchill & Banks Chief Executive Officer Richard Baccari was indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges, for allegedly paying off three North Providence Town Councilmen in return for a zoning change, the council decided to await the outcome of Baccari's still-pending trial before making any decisions.

The village plan is not involved in the lawsuit, and presumably would not be grandfathered if R-20 zoning is established for the property.

The developer's lawsuit asks the Superior Court to reverse the Planning Board's adverse decision on the commercial plan, and also to reverse a subsequent decision of the Town's Zoning Board of Review, which upheld the Planning Board's denial on appeal. The suit was specifically filed against the Zoning Board.