Neighbors hope to stop Churchill & Banks development

Neighbors hope to stop Churchill & Banks development

SMITHFIELD - A neighborhood association opposed to plans by developer Churchill & Banks for a residential and commercial "village" at Putnam Pike and Esmond Street says it intends to seek a restraining order against the Town Council to stop a series of closed-door council discussions on the project.

Lori Larrivee, vice president of Esmond Concerned Citizens, said her group feels that the council's private deliberations - where, apparently, there's been developed a counter-proposal asking Churchill & Banks to scale the plan down in return for a required zoning change - may violate the state's Open Meetings Law.

Churchill & Banks has two lawsuits pending against the town over the rejection of a previous plan for the 29-acre property, but has offered to drop them if the council grants a zone change for the village proposal.

Larrivee said the citizens' group feels that while the open meetings statute allows an exemption when a government agency discusses litigation, the council's attempts at massaging actual details of the plan goes beyond the intent of the law and denies the public a voice in the deliberations process.

She said the secret Town Council counter-proposal, details of which were reported this month in The Valley Breeze & Observer, "raises significant questions" about the legality of the closed meetings and that the sessions should stop until the matter is resolved.

She said her group, which in the past has waged successful campaigns against Churchill & Banks plans for the land, met last Saturday morning and agreed to consult a lawyer this week.

The council has indicated that it expects to hold another in a series of closed sessions on the Churchill & Banks issue before its regular Nov. 5 meeting - a sure sign that the developer rejected the council's compromise proposal, although neither side will comment.

Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha announced last week that Churchill & Banks and its president, Richard P. Baccari Sr., have been indicted in connection with a North Providence corruption probe.

Neronha said a federal grand jury in Providence handed up indictments charging both Baccari, 71, and the company with one count each of conspiracy and bribery, alleging that they made a $50,000 payoff to three North Providence Town Councilmen in exchange for a zoning change to allow development of a supermarket.

The store was never built, but the zoning change passed and the three officials are now serving prison time.

If convicted of conspiracy, Baccari would face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine; the bribery charge carries penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Under a conviction the company would face fines of up to $1 million.

Smithfield Town Solicitor Edmund L. Alves Jr. said the indictment is not expected to affect the local deliberations, noting that "this is America" and the courts eventually decide guilt or innocence. He said the Smithfield project must be judged on its merits.

During the open portion of the Town Council's Oct. 22 meeting, Esmond's Larrivee said her group is "very disappointed with the secrecy surrounding these closed-door meetings" and feels that the council is ignoring neighborhood opinion.

In a later email response, copies of which went to her council colleagues, Democrat Suzanna Alba wrote that "Churchill & Banks are unfortunately the landowners... Please know that if I was on the council years ago, I would not have allowed them to buy the land in the first place... they are the landowners now, so at one point they will develop something... and it is up to this council to ensure that what is built now is in the best interest for all Smithfield residents."

According to the Valley Breeze & Observer's copy of the compromise plan, the council wanted a reduction in the project's residential units from 160 to 124, a cap on the square footage of a proposed 100-room hotel at 54,000 instead of the original 80,000, and a curtailment in the variety of business uses that would be allowed under a zoning change.

The council proposal did not suggest changes in the firm's plan for three points of entry and exit, two on Esmond Street and one on Putnam Pike, subject to any regulations administered by the Planning Board and the state Department of Transportation.

Larrivee told the council her association is mistrustful of Churchill & Banks because of its alleged role in the bribery scheme, and because for a decade the firm did not report known soil contamination on its village-plan site near the Route 295 interchanges.

Denis Rivard, another Esmond resident, said at the meeting that anticipated traffic problems and the soil contamination issue are enough by themselves to warrant rejection of the project.

Comments

Do the residents of Smithfield remember how the Town Council sold us out over the Smithfield Commons Mall??? They will do it again in a heartbeat. We have a traffic nightmare on 44 - only 1 entrance in and out which I believe is a safety hazard! Vote them all out!!!n Secret meetings are never a good thing - what are they keeping from us?

The president and the company are under indictment for bribing three North Providence Town Coucilmen and now they're holding behind door "negotiations" with the Smithfield town council? Doesn't the Smithfield town council see how bad this makes them look? Keep ALL future meetings with this company public to keep the negotiations on the up and up.