Planning Board head appeals his own board's ruling

Planning Board head appeals his own board's ruling

Chairman Benoit says fee waiver is an 'affront' to taxpayers

NORTH SMITHFIELD - An effort to subdivide land behind Dowling Village to later allow a wind turbine there was nearly derailed this week after Planning Board Chairman Lucien Benoit filed an appeal against his own board's decision to waive an $1,850 town fee.

Benoit said later he was simply looking out for taxpayers' pocketbooks.

But Town Planner Robert Ericson said Benoit was just trying to stop a land deal he didn't like.

The Town Council approved the purchase of a 42.5 acre lot from RAM Investment last month as an area for open space with hiking trails.

Part of the agreement included breaking off 2.5 acres to host a wind turbine, a move approved on Oct. 10 by the Planning Board in a 4-1 vote with Benoit casting the only negative vote.

A representative from RAM then requested the Planning Board to waive the seller's review fee, a $1,850 bill that normally covers any legal or time expenses by town personnel related to the project.

"In this case there was no development, no roads and no improvements," said Ericson. "There was almost nothing to review."

Ericson told the board that review of the plan would require minimal work and that he concurred that RAM's fee should be waived. Plus, he pointed out, the work the sellers were doing to create a subdivision would ultimately benefit the town.

"The town gets an advantage by taking it in two pieces because they can later set up a wind turbine," he later explained to The Breeze.

The property is set to be purchased by North Smithfield for $925,000 with the help of a $400,000 open space grant from the Department of Environmental Management. The remaining funds will be taken from a $3 million open space bond approved by voters in 2006.

As part of the deal, RAM has agreed to break off the 2.5 acre parcel and sell it to the town for $1. That removes the small parcel from DEM restrictions on open space grants.

The Planning Board waived the fee by a vote of 3 to 2, but appeals can be filed up to 20 days from when the board's decisions are recorded and posted by any "aggrieved party" according town code.

On Oct. 31, the final day for appeals, Benoit filed a letter with the town clerk.

"I contend that the waiving of fees is not within the purview of the Planning Board, but rather is the exclusive responsibility of our Town Council," Benoit's appeal stated. "The waiver of fees is a direct affront to the taxpayers of North Smithfield who will be directly responsible for a considerable amount of additional debt service as well as outside legal expenses."

Appeals of Planning Board decisions must go before the Zoning Board for a hearing. If zoners ultimately affirm the decision, the matter can also be challenged in Providence Superior Court.

Benoit charged that the fee waiver violated the Town Charter and "is the type of thing that gives rise to suspicions of partisanship, favoritism, cronyism and corruption for which Rhode Island is all too well known.

"Mr. Ericson was wrong to support the appeal, and the solicitor sat in silence," he wrote.

Anxious to see the deal completed, RAM paid the $1,850 fee in exchange for a signed withdrawal of Benoit's appeal. The purchase has been in the works for several years and all elements of the project must now completed in time for DEM's Nov. 30 closing deadline.

"The problem was that it muddied the waters enough to raise title questions," said Ericson.

The planner defends his recommendation to waive the fee for the project and charges that Benoit filed the appeal with the direct intent of halting a deal he doesn't support, despite being out-voted by other members of the board.

"Lucien knows very well how it works," said Ericson. "He tried to pass off an outrageous lie for the sake of stopping the project. It was just to have a reason to file an appeal."

Ericson says that the chairman himself has approved the waiver such fees in the past, and minutes from the Planning Board's Feb. 16, 2012 meeting do validate the claim. At that meeting, the board unanimously approved "application fees exceeding $1,000" for a subdivision for Michael Bell.

Further, Ericson points out that Benoit had discussed the matter with the town solicitor prior to filing the appeal.

In an opinion delivered to Benoit on Oct. 29, Solicitor James Lombardi points to the town's Land Development and Subdivision Regulations, which states that the Planning Board has the power to grant waivers "where such waiver and/or modification is in the best interest of good planning practice and/or design as evidenced by consistency with the North Smithfield Comprehensive Plan and the North Smithfield Zoning Ordinance."

"Without going into great detail about the subdivision, it is the town who may benefit from the subdivision not the applicant," said Lombardi.

Benoit, however, says he filed the appeal to go to bat for taxpayers, who he felt were being shortchanged. He said he takes exception to Ericson's assertion that he was merely trying to hold up the deal, pointing out that as soon as the check was delivered, he withdrew the appeal.

Benoit says it was at Ericson's suggestion that the seller first requested the fee waiver, and that it was inappropriate for the planner to act in the best interest of a party other than the taxpayers.

"I feel his fiduciary responsibility lies 100 percent with the town." Benoit said. He's asked the solicitor to place the past incident where fees were waived on the board's agenda for discussion at their next meeting.

It's not the first time the men have clashed. The pair recently had a tense back and forth over a change to Section 17 of the town's zoning ordinance. And Benoit told the Town Council they don't exactly have a warm relationship.

"Just for the record, Mr. Ericson and I do not get along at all," Benoit said.

On this issue, the Planning Board chairman was pleased with the outcome.

"Fortunately the receipt by the Town Clerk of the $1,800 in fees resulted in an immediate withdrawal of the appeal," Benoit said in a note to the town administrator. "Principle and justice have prevailed.

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