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E.P. Planning Board, eventually, recommends changes to Metacomet parcel

Body accepts amendments to zoning, comprehensive plan following marathon meeting

By Mike Rego
Posted 6/24/20

EAST PROVIDENCE — By the end of what was a marathon, four-hour public hearing on the topic, the Planning Board, at its June 23 meeting, accepted the evaluation of city administrators and …

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E.P. Planning Board, eventually, recommends changes to Metacomet parcel

Body accepts amendments to zoning, comprehensive plan following marathon meeting

Posted

EAST PROVIDENCE — By the end of what was a marathon, four-hour public hearing on the topic, the Planning Board, at its June 23 meeting, accepted the evaluation of city administrators and formally recommended the City Council approve zoning/comprehensive plan changes to the Metacomet Country Club parcel on Veterans Memorial Parkway.

The seven-member board, following a vigorous discussion which included questions from within and from several residents, was unanimous in its vote. A few members, however, expressed reservations over the process and about some of the elements of the proposal being put forth by Marshall Development LLC.

Marshall, once based in the city and still with close ties to it, has indicated it plans to turn the 138-acre parcel from a private golf course into a mixed-use, commercial/residential location with some public access to open space.

In response to a question from board chairman Michael Robinson, the company’s representatives, including lead counsel and East Providence State Senator Bill Conley, made it be known Marshall has a purchase and sales agreement in place with the current Metacomet owners, but the deal has not been finalized, likely awaiting decisions such as the one taken by the board. The lawyers also said pending litigation over the sale, brought by disaffected club members, is about to be resolved.

Last week’s meeting was required by city statute and another step in what all parties described as an expectedly long process of proposals, counters, public meetings and approvals mandated along the way.

Marshall initiated the amending action in late April of this year. The City Council then backed allowing the Planning Board to make an advisory opinion in early May. The board needed to take up the matter within 45 days upon receiving the revision request. The council has 65 days since the start of that same process to approve or deny it, meaning it should soon revisit the topic at one of its meetings over the summer.

City review

Planning Department Director Bill Fazioli, who doubles as chairman of the East Providence Waterfront Commission, previewed the discussion, saying the proposal remains in its very early stages and will eventually need a host of approvals from local authorities as well as state entities such as the Department of Environmental Management, the Department of Transportation and the Coastal Resource Management Council.

He acknowledged the potential redevelopment of Metacoment is “a topic of a lot of interest in the community” and stressed its commentary on the proposal will play a large part, saying “it is critical.”

One of the department’s principal planners, Patrick Hanner, said after an intra-office review, the initial amendments and changes being sought by Marshall are “consistent” with the aims of the city’s comprehensive plan and “positive findings” can be found with it when comparing it to Section 19-2 of zoning ordinances (see box).

Of particular interest to many, Mr. Hanner said the tentative agreement with Marshall limits the size of individual structures so as to discourage construction of so-called “big box” department and grocery stores.

Initial proposal

Mr. Conley, in his opening remarks, stressed Marshall’s roots in the city and the company’s long history of developing within East Providence. He likened the Metacomet proposal to a “village” in the manner it will be built out.

Matt Mrva, New England Director of Planning and Landscape Architecture at Bohler Engineering, presented for Marshall the broad outline of the proposal.

The mixed uses include among other elements retail and hospitality buildings, ground floor commercial/upper level residential structures, low density duplex housing and open space.

On the latter point, of the over 51.9 acres of open space that are part of the 138 total, the initial plan calls for public access of some 30 contiguous acres near Watchemocket Cove and Metacomet Brook, inlets to the adjacent Providence River. The early outline also includes connections between the Pierce Field Complex and the East Bay Bike Path.

Mr. Mrva noted the land has been “private for many years…We’re opening it up and making it quite a bit more public.” He added, while saying the plans are “very preliminary,” “We’re very excited about it. We’re looking forward to engaging (with) the city and our neighbors.”

Board response

Calling it the “most significant matter” in his two years of being on the board, Eric Crook said, assuming his counterparts have as well, he received an “earful about this project” from residents.

Mr. Crook along with fellow board members Michelle Rockwell, Burt Batty and Dr. Alan D’Aiello were, at times, each hesitant to support recommendation of the changes to the council, but did so in the end.

Ms. Rockwell and Mr. Batty, in particular, questioned the allowance for Marshall to potentially construct a four-story hotel on the property. Among several topics, Mr. Crook wondered how much tax revenue will be generated from the plan. And Dr. D’Aiello inquired how any affordable housing element would be handled.

The members also mused about the lack of input the Planning Board will likely have on the project going forward, it almost assuredly being transmitted to the Waterfront Commission, which has a wider breath of authority on such developments than even the City Council.

Dr. D’Aiello said he felt “frustration” about the situation, but for the “best interest of city” it should go to the Waterfront Commission. He admitted to being a little leery about giving up “our oversight, and that bothers me a bit,” but noted Mr. Fazioli serves the dual roles of Planning Director and commission chair, “so the city’s interests are well represented.”

Public comment

Those speaking on behalf of the public last week were similarly concerned over the lack of specificity included in the initial proposal, mostly about the hotel, but also about the impact on the neighborhood, schools, traffic and wildlife.

The idea of the having another large scale mixed use development break ground while residential and commercial real estate around the city sits vacant was raised as well.

When brought up as a comparison, Mr. Fazioli said there was “very high occupancy” at the nearby Kettle Point site, with almost all of its 37 townhouses filled. The developer there has also gained approval to construct a fifth apartment structure, Mr. Fazioli saying the four existing buildings are “90 percent” occupied.

The public, like the board, also questioned the need to relinquish oversight to the Waterfront Commission, which some saw as an off-shoot of the state rather than representative of the city.

City Solicitor Michael Marcello said while it remains in the purview of the City Council to do so, one of the benefits to the move is the commission’s design and review standards are more stringent than those in the zoning code. And Mr. Fazioli informed the discussion nine of the commission’s 11 members were residents of East Providence.

Final thoughts

Mr. Robinson, in leading the closing remarks before the vote, said the proposal to redevelop the Metacomet land “offers an opportunity for tremendous economic impact.” He said the positives were “patently obvious” and that it was “unrealistic that this land is going to remain open space to the public in perpetuity…it’s not now, it’s a private golf club.”

He continued, the Marshall proposal provided the chance for “responsible development of the land in a responsible manner and it starts with us tonight.”

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