Council to vote on zone change for Anchor dealership expansion

Council to vote on zone change for Anchor dealership expansion

Kelly and Michael Thompson stand near the end of their property line, overlooking a recent expansion to the Anchor dealership. Just beyond the rocks where they stand, markers show where construction for the dealership will start. Kelly, who grew up in the same home, said that she used to see nothing but trees from her back yard. (Valley Breeze photo by Sandy Seoane)

NORTH SMITHFIELD - The Anchor Subaru dealership on Eddie Dowling Highway is still looking to expand, but first co-owner Bob Benoit will need the Town Council to agree to change several properties currently zoned 'residential suburban' to 'business highway,' in the latest version of his plan to create a new showroom and additional parking.

A group of abutters, meanwhile, have united against the proposal, and they say the setup Benoit is proposing is unreasonably large and will negatively affect both their quality of life and their property values.

After hearing their arguments this week, the council will ultimately have to decide.

"The dealership is getting way too big," said Louis Phaneuf. "Anybody that would live where we're living would definitely feel the way we're feeling. We all moved into a residential area abutting residential land."

At issue are several properties along the outskirts of the current lot, which holds around 700 new and used cars. Benoit has operated and grown his business over the past 20 years along the land, which borders a highway on the opposing side. He's requested a zone change for four lots to allow him to build additional parking, and wants to renovate the dealership's current office space to create a 30,000-square-foot sales office and showroom. The change, Benoit says, would bring 50 to 100 new jobs to the area.

Phaneuf's land abuts one such parcel, where the developer has proposed a 100-foot buffer between the new parking lot and the residential property line.

Looking out at the forested land behind his home this week, Phaneuf eyed the florescent pink ribbon marking the end of the proposed parking lot.

"It's so close," he said. "One hundred feet is not a lot."

The expansion plan has been modified several times over the past few months, in part, to make concessions for the neighbors, and Benoit and his team of experts have held more the a half dozen meetings with town officials.

"The buffer area will remain residential suburban, conceivably with a conservation easement," explained Town Planner Robert Ericson of the latest proposal. "The grading has changed, so the only blasting will be near the new showroom construction." The town's Planning Board has already ruled that the development is "compatible with and supportive of the surrounding neighborhood," and consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, and Benoit even purchased an additional residential lot on Sayles Hill Road to accommodate the project.

The abutters, however, remain well beyond skeptical.

"I'm wondering how much residential property he's going to buy with the intent of making it commercial," said Paul Soares, another owner of neighboring property.

Soares and Phaneuf are among more than 70 residents who have signed a petition against the development and they point out that the dealership is already one of the largest in the area.

"The dealership will be close to 24 acres in size if approved," said Rachel Savoie. "As a visual, that is over 18 football fields in size."

By comparison, Benoit's competitors, Subaru North Attleborough encompasses a 6-acre lot, and Village Nissan sits on just 4.74 acres, they say.

One of the group's biggest concerns is the lighting. The dealership sits downhill from the homes along Sayles Hill Road and residents worry that the lights from the lot will shine directly into their homes, and that all privacy will be lost in their back yards.

Kelly and Michael Thompson say that's what happened to their home after the dealership's last expansion.

"When they did that expansion, our yard lit up like a Christmas tree," Kelly said.

Kelly grew up in the home where she and her husband are now raising their children and remembers when trees blocked the highway beyond. A dealership parking lot is now visible from the Thompson's property line and the build-out would bring the pavement and lights even closer.

"I haven't heard a single shred of evidence that it's going to be supportive or consistent with the neighborhood," said Michael.

Soares points to several stone walls along the proposed development zone that he estimates were built in the mid 1700s. As chairman of the town's Conservation Commission, Soares was part of an effort two years back attempting to prompt the town to create a ordinance to protect historic stone walls. The idea ultimately failed.

"This whole section is one of the first parts of the town that was settled," Soares said.

Asked if there are any adjustments Benoit could make that would make the building plan palatable, the abutters seem to agree that expansion of any kind on residential land should be opposed.

"I don't sleep nights because of this," said Phaneuf. "It's not just the lighting, it's the value of our homes. Who's going to want to buy next to a dealership of that size?"

The Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the master plan on Thursday May 1, and the council will take it up on Monday, May 5, when they consider amending zoning for portions of lots 14, 84, 142 and 199, which are all owned by the dealership.