Council rejects lighted signs for J’s Deli, Saki’s plazas

Council rejects lighted signs for J’s Deli, Saki’s plazas

Town leaders have upheld a rule prohibiting businesses on Diamond Hill Road in Cumberland just north of Route 295 from having internally illuminated signs, citing a need to retain the town’s character. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)

CUMBERLAND – Two-tenths of a mile is a step too far in potentially jeopardizing the character of the town, say some community leaders.

Owners of the plaza housing popular sandwich shop J’s Deli and other businesses, at 2364 Diamond Hill Road, lobbied the Town Council last Wednesday, April 14, to extend the cutoff line for allowing internally illuminated signs, but the council, by a 4-3 vote, rejected the request.

Councilor Scott Schmitt expressed reservations from the beginning of the conversation, saying he fears Diamond Hill Road becoming the next Mendon Road in Cumberland or Mineral Spring Avenue in North Providence.

“It’s definitely going to change the character,” said Schmitt, saying he counts at least six properties that could have been impacted by the change.

Schmitt suggested that businesses in these commercial complexes knew the restrictions on internally illuminated lights when they moved in.

“I don’t feel the compelling reason to approve it,” he said.

Cumberland’s existing zoning ordinance, upheld by the council last week, permits internally illuminated signs on Diamond Hill Road, High Street, Mendon Road, Broad Street and Dexter Street, “except for on Diamond Hill Road, from Industrial Road and Broadview Avenue north to Pine Swamp Road to the Woonsocket boundary.”

The change would have struck the words “Industrial Road and Broadview Avenue” and instead prohibited such signs from Country Hill Road, two-tenths of a mile up Diamond Hill Road from Industrial Road, and then north to Woonsocket. The difference? One town block.

Elizabeth Noonan, attorney with Providence-based Adler Pollock & Sheehan representing J’s Deli complex owner Mars Enterprises, asked if there was anything that might be done to make the change more palatable to Schmitt, suggesting that the council postpone a vote, but Schmitt said he couldn’t envision changing his mind with new information.

Noonan said that despite the entire area being commercially zoned under a C-1 designation, just this one small stretch prohibits the illuminated signs. With construction of two roundabouts at Route 295 and Diamond Hill Road set to cause problems for business, revising the ordinance would help the businesses “compete on an even field with the other commercially zoned districts,” she said.

Though the petitioner in this case was Mars Enterprises, the owners of Saki’s Pizza were also in favor of the change, said Noonan. She emphasized that these are modest businesses and “not massive enterprises” looking to go “crazy.”

If Saki’s was still located on the property now occupied by Okonite, as it was until that plaza was torn down, the pizza place would be allowed to have an internally illuminated sign under existing restrictions.

Noonan responded to Schmitt’s suggestion that business owners knew what they were getting into by saying representatives from Mars Enterprises purchased the building in 2001, long before any internally illuminated signs were allowed in town. Now only certain businesses are prohibited from having them, and “it seems somewhat unfair,” she said. There are other ways to regulate business growth and development, she added.

Councilor Lisa Beaulieu agreed with Schmitt. She spoke of living near Chapel Four Corners back when it had a blinking light and Saki’s was where CVS is now. The change there “absolutely changed the character of Chapel Four Corners,” she said.

In the case of the internally illuminated signs, “I think this is just the first step toward that,” added Beaulieu.

Mayor Bill Murray said the request from Mars Enterprises was prompted by the arrival of Bank Newport in the J’s Deli plaza. He said the bank “wanted this badly” as a newer business in town.

Schmitt, Beaulieu, Tom Kane and Chairman Peter Bradley all voted no to the zoning ordinance change.

Beaulieu asked who paid for advertising the requested zoning ordinance amendment, and Assistant Solicitor Chris Alger said the town paid for it.

Alger indicated that he couldn’t comment on the ordinance itself because a family member of his owns the plaza. Asked if he drafted the ordinance change, Alger said that he had, “at the request of the mayor.”

Kane also questioned why the town paid for advertising the zone change, and questioned Alger on whether he really recused himself from the discussion after the assistant solicitor interjected comments several times. Beaulieu questioned how other council members could support the change in good conscience. Councilor Craig Dwyer said he could easily approve it in good conscience, saying it was the right move to help a few small businesses.

Alger said the ordinance he drafted simply reiterates the contents of the town’s comprehensive plan, and he didn’t comment on the merits of whether the change should be approved.

Murray grew upset about the line of questioning from Kane and Beaulieu, two frequent critics of his administration, saying, “Go ahead, go anti-business.” He added, “Councilors Beaulieu and Kane, they love to look for trouble.”

Council members asked attorney and former Cumberland planner Kelley Morris about the history of disallowing illuminated signs in certain areas. She said the town began allowing illuminated signs when she was planner, within the past five years. Prior to that, lighting the signs could only be done by shining a light on them, she said.

Under current ordinances, the businesses at the two Diamond Hill commercial plazas are allowed to put a spotlight on their signs.

The Breeze reported in 2013 that Morris had proposed allowing internal illumination as a way to make the town more friendly to business. She said at that time that the rules are routinely ignored.

Comments

Remember before the plaza that was just an old silver metal house zoned residential. A hardship exception was made to change the zoning to commercial so the property could be sold. Low and behold as soon as the change was made Mars enterprises (AKA Kinch and Alger) purchased the property and developed it. There is always more to the story than meets the eye.

So fine to be south of 295 and have flashing neon signs, video screen signs (like J.A. Appliances) etc. and look like honky-tonk world. Cumberland, you're not hurting businesses by upholding smart zoning like the one in place on Diamond Hill Rd. Make it townwide before we look like Mineral Spring in N. Prov.

Finally, someone rooting out the rampant nepotism by the regime (Murray, McKee, Alger). If that's the trouble he looks for mayor - I say do MORE. For too long property purchases have been dedicated to the good ol' boys and this mayor does favors for ALL of them. Give the town back to the people.

I'm just curious, we keep calling Chris Alger the Assistant Solicitor, yet he gets a 1099 for the town. Since the assistant solicitor is directed by the town for what he does and attends all town council meetings, by definition from the IRS is that he is an employee. Everything he does is directed by the mayor. What are we hiding?

From the IRS

You are not an independent contractor if you perform services that can be controlled by an employer (what will be done and how it will be done). This applies even if you are given freedom of action. What matters is that the employer has the legal right to control the details of how the services are performed.

Where has the actual Town Solicitor been? Why are we paying Alger per hour to do the job Tom Heffner is paid, and paid handsomely, to do? How much are we spending for Alger to sit next to the Mayor at every Town Council meeting while Heffner stays home?

We were "good guys" and let the developers at Garden City Center replace our cherished, albeit, old and a little decrepit, with a new LED sign - it isn't one of those really obnoxious ones, and it has no flashing or moving parts and it turns off at a reasonable hour of the night. HOWEVER! Now Chapel View wants their sign - and they want it taller - and it will face the other. Approved! Now - they want another sign further down Sockanosset - Approved! Pretty soon they will turn on the LA Fitness halo and put in a Topgolf with glowing LED signage and there goes the heart of Cranston. The time to stop it is at the first sign - because then you have nothing to stand on going further. Be strong. It is not anti-business - but it IS pro-resident.

Too many lights today...turn off the lights. Enjoy the dark.

Save our dark skies.