It’s not over yet, and it may be years before a 630-unit self-storage facility at Pond Plaza in Norwood is either built or shelved for good.
On Wednesday, after 18 hours of testimony at three meetings, the Zoning Board of Review granted PRW Holdings LLC a special use permit and parking variance with conditions to remodel the existing Pond Plaza to accommodate the self-storage facility.
The next steps for the developer, said K. Joseph Shekarchi, attorney for RPW, include approvals from the Departments of Transportation and Environmental Management before another public hearing – this time before the Planning Board – for preliminary plan approval.
At the earliest, Shekarchi thinks RPW would be prepared for preliminary approval this fall and that construction wouldn’t begin until 2020.
But the process may not get that far. That depends on Save Sand Pond and what it does in response to the zoning board’s action.
“We’re going to be appealing as far as I can tell,” said Alisa Richardson, president of the coalition, who also served as an expert witness in opposition to the development.
Richardson believes the coalition has grounds for an appeal based on what she called “missteps on procedure” and inconsistencies.
“I feel like we walked in [to the hearings] with hockey skates and were told, no, we’re playing baseball today,” she said.
She said Monday that the coalition plans to appeal.
Pond neighbors have been on the alert since PRW advanced the storage facility proposal almost two years ago. Apart from some landscaping and issues relating to storm water runoff, it appeared while the plaza building would be enlarged, the overall development would result in a reduction of traffic and usage.
The Planning Department recommended approval, but when confronted by concerted neighborhood opposition based on environmental impacts to the pond and overbearing appearance of the proposed structure, the board denied master plan approval on grounds that the development is inconsistent with the comprehensive plan.
PRW appealed to the Zoning Board the finding that a self-storage facility is consistent with the comprehensive plan and general business zoning of Post Road. The zoning board agreed, opening the way for it to hear the request for a special use permit.
Against this legal backdrop that has been the underpinning of the PRW position is the neighborhood cry that games are being played and that the development would irreparably damage a “hidden secret” – the pond – and alter a defining feature of the neighborhood.
In his closing statement, Shekarchi said, “you have to get through the emotion and look at the facts.”
Turning to the testimony of experts for the coalition, attorney Marisa Desautel reasoned in her closing statement that Sand Pond “is a sensitive natural resource” and there are no guarantees as to what might be stored on the premises if a self-storage facility. She called the proposal an industrial use that should not be permitted in a general business zone. As she did several times during the multiple of hearings, Desautel noted that the coalition did not have the opportunity to review submissions of expert witnesses for the petitioner before they were submitted to the board.
Following testimony on behalf of the applicant and the coalition, board chair Everett O’Donnell opened the meeting to public comment, but limited it to 15 minutes.
O’Donnell didn’t have to cut off comment, yet David Bouchard, a leader of the opposition, took offense to the limitation the following day. He argued the board had already made its decision and the opportunity for public comment was a mere formality and an insult at that.
He noted that board member George Shuster read a three-page motion to grant the petition moments after the hearing closed and that obviously had been written well in advance to closure of the hearing.
“They had already made a decision,” he said.
As for other members of the board, Bouchard said, ‘there was not one peep, are they all puppets? The process is more important than the people of Warwick.”
In a balanced summary of the regulations and the significance of Sand Pond to the community, Shuster’s motion at one point appeared to be aimed at denying the petition and at another granting it.
“While we have all watched Warwick develop, and while we have all, to one degree or another, participated in and benefited from the development of the city, we have also learned, in some ways too late, about the delicate state of our city’s freshwater resources,” he said. “In many respects, we have learned only after destroying our ponds how much they mean to our city’s environmental health and our enjoyment of the city – indeed, to the character of their surrounding areas.”
From a legal standpoint, Shuster who is an attorney said, “For the most part, I believe that the petitioner has demonstrated, through its written submissions and the further evidence adduced at this hearing and the prior hearing, that the special use permit and related parking relief it has requested should be granted. The petitioner has heard the objections to its proposal, and the petitioner has gone to great effort and expense to prove, by way of factual evidence and expert testimony.”
Shuster went on to summarize the statements made by PRW experts.
Throughout the hearing, with attorney John Mancini representing PRW, the procedure had more of a courtroom feel with Mancini and Desautel picking apart the testimony of opposing witnesses and seeking to undermine the credibility of each other’s experts. Wednesday’s hearing was no different, with Desautel protesting when Mancini called upon Warwick attorney Sanford Resnick to disclose what he had found relative to deed restrictions that the coalition claimed prohibited the development.
Desautel said this was new information that should have been shared with the coalition. She asked that the board refrain from making a decision and continue the hearing.
In a recess, O’Donnell was asked if he would oblige. The answer was emphatic. The hearing had gone on long enough and there would be a decision.
PRW, however, couldn’t count it as a clear win. In his motion, Shuster listed seven conditions. He listed amendments to the landscaping plan to provide for additional vegetative screening; that no fertilizers or pesticides be used on the property; that PRW cleanup debris and litter alongside the pond; that PRW make a contribution to URI Watershed Watch in an amount to provide water testing for the next ten years; that PRW reduce the parking by 20 spaces on the northeast perimeter of the site and the planting of trees and shrubs in the area; that PRW provide additional controls on stormwater runoff; and that the storage facility be subject to “Standard 13 requirements.”
Shekarchi said PRW would be able to live with the conditions.
By JOHN HOWELL