After months of pushing the vote off, the planning commission last week voted 4-3 in favor of recommending a change to the comprehensive plan that would allow Cumberland Farms to build at the corner of Park and Warwick Avenues. Five votes were needed to recommend for or against the change, thus there is no formal recommendation being forwarded to the City Council.
Now the proposal moves to Ordinance Committee on Thursday night, when members of the public, representatives from Cumberland Farms, and planning director Jason Pezzullo will present their facts and opinions on the plan.
Pezzullo said that although the planning commission has given no recommendation, he and the planning department staff have recommended that the proposed amendments are consistent with the comprehensive plan and would positively recommend this to the Ordinance Committee and City Council.
“Helping facilitate redevelopment, that was a big theme in the comprehensive plan,” he said about the plan for the intersection. “Not to stand in the way. The rub is that the public doesn’t like what the redevelopment is going to look like…We’re on the same page in that it needs help, needs to be redeveloped, and something needs to be done.”
He said that he understands why members of the community are passionate about this proposal, but his focus is on whether or not it is consistent with the comprehensive plan. He said that as one of the authors of the plan, which took “years of formulation” and was officially adopted in 2012, he has “some perspective” on what it’s trying to achieve.
In Pezzullo’s opinion, the community group Edgewood Preservation Society, which has hired planners and traffic experts to testify on their behalf at public meetings, contends that the zone change at the corner is not consistent with the comprehensive plan, which he doesn’t agree with.
Lisa Gibb, who president of the group, called the non-recommendation from the Planning Commission a “small victory” for them. She said they’ve been getting community support in opposition to the Cumberland Farms proposal and this non-recommendation gives them “an extra boost.”
Gibb also said that if the City Council voted to amend the plan, her group would sue the city on behalf of the homeowners around in the area.
Lynne Michelson, another member of the group and a resident of Henry Street, which lies behind where the intersection is, said that, according to a lawyer she spoke with, they could sue the city for “inverse condemnation.” She said this is because the city would be allowing a service station (with an underground fuel tank) to built within 300 feet of 40 homes. Those 40 homes would be cut off from any Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds for future improvements to homes and cause them to be ineligible for HUD-based mortgages for first-time home buyer loans. They contend that the homes will then lose value and marketability, costing the residents who live there.
Councilman Steve Stycos has voiced opposition towards the plan since it was first proposed in 2015. He said that he partly opposes it because of the impact it would have on homeowners, but also because he thinks traffic will be worse and he thinks the scale of the project is “much too big.”
“It’s not just a neighborhood gas station,” he said. “[One like that] belongs where most of them are, like on Post Road or 117 or a major highway where it’s not in the middle of a neighborhood.”
“What we’ve been trying to do and what I think the entire neighborhood should be is mixed commercial and residential,” he continued. “This is kind of highway commercial planning.”
Stycos said that despite the community opposition he would bet that the amendment will pass through Ordinance Committee on Thursday night because “four of the six members of Ordinance have sponsored it.”
Council President Michael Farina, one of the sponsors of the amendment, said this his decision is going to “come down to what we think is best for the city as a whole.” He also said he wants to hear what’s different this time around from the last, when there were problems with curb cuts and zoning.
“Anybody who says they’ve made up their mind isn’t doing their job as an elected official,” he said. “I don’t believe in making a decision until I hear from the applicant. They haven’t had their day in front of Council yet. I want to hear that before I make a decision.”
As for the planning commission’s non-recommendation, Farina said “it would be different if they gave a solid yes vote,” but he looks at it as having passed 4-3 in planning. He added that it is “sad that they couldn’t muster a full group” to give a recommendation one-way or the other, and it would be “easier” if they did.
At the Ordinance meeting Thursday, Farina said they’ll hear from both sides of the debate, though if anyone is labeled as an expert he won’t read too much into that, saying “I don’t weight anybody’s opinion different from another.”