Wightman’s Farm will remain open — for now.
Warren Town Council members on Tuesday night denied a request to re-zone Metacom Avenue’s largest tract of open space land from residential to commercial, an idea that has been debated in Warren going on two years. It came down to a 3-1 vote, with councilor Cathie Tattrie voting for the zone change and councilors Scott Lial, Chris Stanley and Joseph DePasquale voting against. Not voting was David Frerichs, who grows hay on the land and stepped aside to avoid a possible conflict of interest.
The three councilors’ decision to reject developer Robert Avila and his daughter Robin Remy’s request was made after a three-hour public hearing that was at times bizarre and other times ugly, and is a victory for residents of Adams Lane, a gravel track that runs through the property from Metacom and serves a handful of houses on the Kickemuit River. The decision was also cheered by Warren conservationists and property owners on Parker Avenue, Metacom and other areas, who spoke at length about the importance of keeping the land as is and protecting the Kickemuit River from runoff that could result.
Apart from Ms. Remy, her attorney and several hired experts, nobody spoke in favor of the project during the public hearing.
Though opponents of the change roundly cheered the decision, it might not be the last word on the matter. Just before their vote, Warren town solicitor Anthony DeSisto asked councilors to verbally state their reasons for or against the request, so they could be compiled into a written decision.
“You have 45 days to have a final decision entered,” he said. “Make a decision, but I’d like an opportunity to reduce it to writing. That’s in case anybody wants to take an appeal on whatever decision you make.”
“Forty-five days aren’t going to change the facts of the matter at hand,” said Mr. Lial, who seconded Mr. DePasquale’s motion to deny.
Mr. Avila and Ms. Remy’s plan was to change the zoning to commercial in an effort to more effectively market the property to developers. Apart from needing a change to the land’s zoning, they also needed and sought a change to the town’s Comprehensive Community Plan. The document guides development in Warren, and several sections conflicted with the owners’ hopes for the property.
But in seeking the change, the applicants also presented several potential development plans, including one showing dozens of house lots and a large commercial development fronting Metacom Avenue.
Nearby residents, particularly on Adams Lane, worried that the development would threaten access to their homes, as they would have to drive through the new commercial development to get to Metacom.
Dana Warren, an architect who lives at 345 Adams Lane, was one of request’s most ardent opponents. She spoke at the hearing and noted that hundreds signed petitions opposing the project. Approving it would be bad for Adams, as well as the town as a whole, she said.
“This land is clearly blocked in with opposition,” said Ms. Warren, whose right to speak and use maps to make her point was initially objected to by Bruce Cox, Wightman’s attorney.
One of her major concerns was access, as Adams Lane is not a public road but an easement running over private property. What would happen to her rights if the entire section of the farm fronting Metacom was turned into a 30,000-square-foot commercial development, she asked?
As neighbor Ben Luk said, there is a lot of concern in the area about “asking residents to go through a commercial lot to get to their houses.”
“Who is going to maintain that?”
Others had different concerns, including the setting of precedent.
“Why would you change the comp plan?” asked resident Andre Asselin. “Is there a defect in zoning? Everything from what is presently there fits very well; if you want to change the comp plan … you have to justify that to the state.”
Parker Road resident Steven Calenda, a member of the zoning board, said he opposed the project for a host of reasons.
“We can’t change the laws to suit needs” of property owners,” he said. “This is a very slippery slope. This never should have made it out of planning,” referring to the planning board’s decision last year to recommend the zoning and comp plan changes by a 5-4 vote.
Besides, he said, Metacom Avenue is busy enough as it is, with enough vacant buildings that could be filled before new ones are built.
“If we develop this commercially, it will create more of a traffic hazard on Metacom Avenue that we can’t handle at this time,” he said. “We have vacant buildings not more than 500 feet from this. Relief (from zoning) shouldn’t be based on financial hardship.”
“That is not a threat”
Yet, it was that financial hardship that prompted the request in the first place, Ms. Remy said. Though she, her sisters and fathers have held the land for years, they can no longer afford to hold it without returns, she said. Though she said she loves the land, it can’t and won’t stay open forever. What the town wants to see there — a commercial development, multiple house lots or even an affordable development with as many as 90 units, is up to them, she suggested.
“It can go a number of ways. It can go commercial, or it can go residential,” she said. Without a zone change, “our only option is to build it out, destroy the land basically.”
Her attorney, Mr. Cox, said several times that the owners have the right to explore affordable housing on the land if they’re not able to develop or market it commercially. If that happens, he and hired planner Ed Pimental said, the scale could dwarf anything they’ve proposed so far.
“As it stands right now we could submit a plan for 31 houses” and potentially build up to 90 affordable units, Mr. Cox said. “We have not filed that because we don’t want to confuse the issues, but that is a real fact that some people perceive as a threat. That is not a threat. This is a reality of what could be done here.”
“It certainly has the tenor of a threat, to be honest, as I’m sitting here,” Mr. Lial said.
Instead of threats, several residents suggested that there could be cooperation. Phyllis Poor lives at 15 Parker Ave., and said Ms. Remy and her family have a crucial decision to make: Make a positive change for Warren, or a negative one.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to see The Robert Avila Greenspace,” she asked?
“It could be Bob Avila the real estate king, or Bob Avila the mini-mall king, but wouldn’t Bob Avila, the green space king be nice?
Her statement drew applause from the audience, which was more than 90-strong.
When it came time for a vote, councilors were asked to list their reasons for or against the proposal. Mr. DePasquale said he was sympathetic to the concerns raised by opponents, and said he did not have enough information to support the application.
Mr. Lial said he questioned Ms. Remy’s true motives, as well as the way the residents of Adams and the surrounding areas were treated by the applicants.
“The applicant has said herself, although trying to massage it quite elegantly, this is not for financial gain but the betterment of the area,” he said. Meanwhile, she and her supporters have “cast dispersions upon those” who live nearby.
“I personally would be very offended if I lived there.”
Said Mr. Stanley:
“I think the fact that there’s no guarantees is what’s unsettling to us. There’s no guarantees what it’s going to look like. You knew what the conditions were” when the property was originally purchased. Now, to ask to change zoning and the comp plan “is probably more unfair to the rest of the neighborhood.
Apparently alluding to Ms. Poor’s statement, he said, “I do see a value in sitting own and having a conversation and talking about open space. I think that is a good solution.
The only councilor to vote for the plan, Ms. Tattrie, had an opinion that several in the audience called “bizarre” following the meeting.
“I have numerous concerns, about property rights, about our comprehensive plan,” said Ms. Tattrie, the last to cast a vote. “I definitely think the Kickemuit River is something we need to protect. There’s not enough information to make a very sound decision to go with a change to the comprehensive plan at this point.” There was also a lot of misinformation on both sides of the argument, she said.
Though it appeared she too would vote against, she then noted that her three fellow councilors had already cast votes against the project, enough for it to fail. For that reason, she said, she was taking the other side.
“I disagree with the three gentlemen here,” she said.