Cumberland Council rejects economic development plan

Cumberland Council rejects economic development plan

Owners say the vacant upper level of the Ann & Hope Mill is nearly impossible to develop without Planned Unit Development zoning in place. (Breeze photo by Nicole Dotzenrod)

CUMBERLAND – A plan to promote redevelopment of some of the town’s largest underutilized properties has been scrapped after a 5-2 vote by the Town Council to reject it last Wednesday, Feb. 7.

Mayor Bill Murray, in an email to Town Council members after the meeting, said the defeat of the Planned Unit Development proposal, or PUD, shows “that there is no appetite on your part to move forward on this revenue-generating (program).”

Put simply, said Murray, he is instructing Jonathan Stevens, the town’s director of planning and community development, “to close this program.” He said he’s also notifying owners of the properties targeted for the more flexible zoning designation of the decision.

With a PUD designation, developers aren’t held to the same rigid standards on setbacks and other requirements, allowing them, for example, to put a commercial use right next to a residential area.

Murray and his group of planning experts were seeking approval of a plan they said would reinvigorate some of the town’s most difficult parcels for development, adding a new revenue stream at a time when most of the town is already developed.

Council members said there were simply too many questions about the scope of the PUD proposal and how it might impact the town going forward. Of particular concern at the Feb. 7 meeting is what it might do to bring more residential development and more children into local schools, an expense, some said, that would negate new income gained. Council members said they were also concerned about potentially giving up their own authority to approve development plans going forward.

Murray and his team emphasized that the council would tailor the PUD for each property after passing the initial plan, establishing safeguards to limit impacts to the town, but his statements did little to assuage concerns.

After owners of the Berkeley Mill opted out of the proposal prior to the meeting, citing an independent business plan to develop a brew pub as part of an ongoing aggressive development plan, and not wanting to be slowed down, eight properties remained in the proposal, including Ann & Hope and the McLaughlin & Moran beer distributor property. All properties were considered for their size and opportunity for redevelopment. Properties included three historic mills covering 1 million square feet of floor space and the 73-acre National Grid property off I-295.

An affirmative vote last week would have given the blessing to a comprehensive amendment establishing the PUD, and officials would have then moved forward with drafting an ordinance that was “appropriate and valuable” for each redevelopment opportunity, said David Westcott, an outside consultant on the plan.

Members of Murray’s team focused on the redevelopment of the Ashton Mill as a success story in mill redevelopment. Stevens said officials listened carefully to mill owners as they talked about their needs.

But Councilor Tom Kane expressed misgivings about the number of students who now come from the Ashton Mill and Cumberland Crossing developments.

He said Cumberland is a “destination for families” seeking a good school system, and even the proposed limit of two bedrooms per unit could attract more of them, leading to more costs.

“More people will come the more residential units we build,” he said.

Kane said he put in a phone cal and learned that there were 27 children living at the Ashton Mils, meaning the more than $9,000 in local funding to educate each child negates the revenue from the project.

Stevens asked Kane if that total included the mill housing around the mill, and Kane said he would have to check.

Stevens later told The Breeze that he checked and found that only seven school-age children are living in the 192 units at the Ashton Mill Lofts. Before the Ashton Mill was converted to housing, the town received $21,900 a year in property taxes, he said. Last year owners of the mill paid $264,800.

Stevens repeatedly said that the idea of the PUD is not to put an extra load on city services, and the plan would be further refined to protect the town.

On the Cumberland Crossing complex, Kane said the project was sold as a one- and two-bedroom facility that would draw people without children. Some 70 students are now living there, he said, making it one of the largest bus stops in the town. The combined cost of $666,000 to educate them, based on per-pupil spending, is nearly double the $385,038 generated, he said.

“I don’t know how we protect against a situation like that with what is being brought before us,” he said.

Kane later conceded that the district woudn’t save that $666,000 if the 70 students were taken out of the district, as per-pupil spending is calculated based on the entire school budget.

Scott Wolf, of Grow Smart Rhode Island, urged the council to pass the PUD, saying it’s a great tool for economic development. He said Kane’s assertion about all students at a given complex costing the town more is a bit of a fallacy, since many families move from one place to another within the same town.

Councilor Lisa Beaulieu said she felt amending the comprehensive plan to allow the PUD and then changing the zoning was “putting the cart before the horse.” She made a motion to table the proposal as she weighed new information provided, but her motion was only supported by Councilor Jim Metivier. Councilor Craig Dwyer then made the motion to approve the measure, but got only Councilor Bob Shaw to vote in the affirmative with him. Council President Peter Bradley and Councilors Kane, Metivier, Beaulieu, Scott Schmitt all voted against.

Beaulieu said there were too many issues at play here, including questions about “emotions, trust and faith.” She said if the plan had just targeted mill properties, or simply given council members something they could feel more comfortable about, she could have seen it succeeding.

Shaw said he was in favor of passing the measure so officials could have “much more further discussion” on what they want to see with the zoning for the various parcels.

Without the PUD in place to provide greater flexibility for parcels that are difficult to develop, Murray said he envisions further stagnation for some of the town’s largest property owners.

An example of how the PUD would have led to better development is found at the McLaughlin and Moran property on Nate Whipple Highway, where developer Jim McKee is looking to replace a cluster of buildings with mixed-use development. With no PUD in place, McKee could now legally move forward with an approved plan that’s “not appropriate for that site,” said Murray, including two large apartment buildings with a small amount of commercial space. The more desirable development is to have commercial development out front with condos and apartments out back, he said.

Kane and others said they fear relaxing zoning parameters for such a diverse group of properties would cause the council to lose too much control of developments. He said if a developer comes before the council with an opportunity for significant development within existing rules, he can’t envision the council ever turning them down.

“I’m not sure why we need to reinvent the wheel,” he said, by “handpicking” a handful of properties.

Schmitt agreed, saying he too felt like the change was a step too far. If the owners of Ann & Hope come before the council for a zone change, he said he doesn’t see the board turning them down.

Murray said he envisions neighbors of the targeted properties being opposed to plans if there’s no PUD plan backing it.

“This can be adapted as we go along,” he said.

Westcott cited the difficulty of the process without the PUD, saying not having it in place is a deterrent to major projects getting done. The idea behind this proposal is to create an overarching concept plan “where pieces fit together,” he said, essentially approving “the whole thing all the way through.”

Shaw said he serves as council member to “protect the brand of Cumberland.” Any “changes to the façade of Cumerland should be brought before us,” he said.

Stevens assured Shaw and others that the zoning language would be “tailor made” for the council to approve. If they don’t like what’s proposed, they could change it or kill it, he said.

Westcott agreed. “If you don’t like it, don’t pass it,” he said.

Murray and others emphasized that existing zoning would not be going away, and the council would not lose its authority.

Michael Chase, director of real estate at Ann & Hope and a member of the Chase family ownership group, advocated for the PUD, saying granting more flexibility in developing the 450,000-square-foot mill building would make it easier to attract partners, raise capital, and “create something the town would be really proud of.”

Without the certainty of zoning spelling out the overall plan for development, it’s difficult to get anyone on board, he said.

Westcott emphasized that the PUD plan wouldn’t allow all residential development for any one property, instead incorporating other uses as officials see fit.


So much for the good of the Town. The Town Council has no vision for the future. Most of them like drama and trouble and don't pay attention to what they should...which is the best interest of the Town. Remember all this in November folks.

Thank you to our Town Council for having the best interests of Cumberland Residents at heart. The "fallacy" comment by a proponent of this proposal above made me laugh... do we really think that people with kids are moving from complex to complex in town, or from home to complex (when many of these complexes are designated for different schools)?

The frustrating thing to read was how we are apparently being held hostage by the developer, McKee, as well. We need to pass this so he doesn't build the bad development. Perhaps the "bad" development shouldn't have been approved in the first place. I remember reading about that one - the Mayor's Planning Director urged passage of the "bad development" with the "hopes that" the zoning would change for them and they would then revert to the "preferred" one. Since when do we promote passage of a development on hope?

And regarding the comment above about the TC not being for economic development? I think that they are the ones who WANTED an Economic Development Committee - but the Mayor nixed that (rather unprofessionally as always).

Thank you again, TC - if the Mayor wasn't so petulant, he would have Stevens go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan akin to what Councilperson Beaulieu mentioned, starting small, targeting mills. But alas, he wants to take his ball and go home. THAT is the behavior we all need to remember in November.