By DANIEL KITTREDGE and ALLIE LEWIS On its surface, a proposed zoning change brought before the City Council's Ordinance Committee last week seemed relatively straightforward. A property owner has requested that his lot at the end of Sage Drive, part of
On its surface, a proposed zoning change brought before the City Council’s Ordinance Committee last week seemed relatively straightforward.
A property owner has requested that his lot at the end of Sage Drive, part of the Alpine Estates development, be changed from A-80 residential zoning to A-20 – allowing for the extension of the road and construction of eight new homes rather than the four currently allowed under the city’s rules.
The lengthy and often emotional proceedings spurred by the proposal, however, made clear there are much larger issues at play than the fate of a single lot, from the status of the city’s Comprehensive Plan to the future of Western Cranston.
Ultimately, the committee voted 6-1 to forward a negative recommendation on the request to the full council, which is slated to take it up later this month. All zoning change petitions are required to go through the Planning Commission and City Council for approval.
“We need to slow down,” Matthew Reilly, the council’s Ward 6 representative and chairman of the Ordinance Committee, said shortly before the vote. “We’re not paving over Western Cranston, and that’s it.”
This is far from the first time the Sage Drive zoning change has come before city officials, or the first time it has generated controversy.
In 2019, the Planning Commission backed the property owner’s request for the switch on a 6-3 vote. But the proposal was withdrawn from consideration before the council could take it up.
At that time, a number of residents had spoken against the zoning change, arguing that it could pave the way for broader rezoning in Western Cranston – and, in turn, exacerbate concerns over issues like traffic in the neighborhood and classroom sizes at schools in the area, including nearby Orchard Farms Elementary.
Some of those residents had also sharply criticized Thomas Casale, who owns the 0 Sage Drive property with his brother, John, characterizing his response to neighborhood concerns as uncooperative and threatening.
This fall, the zoning change came back up for consideration. In September, after a hearing that drew no members of the public to speak on the issue, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the zoning change.
When the matter came before the Ordinance Committee that month, however, many residents were in attendance to voice their opposition. Some also questioned whether the legal advertisement of the Planning Commission’s September meeting had been sufficiently clear in its wording, suggesting residents had not turned out for those proceedings because of a belief it was not, in fact, a public hearing.
As a result, the Ordinance Committee sent the matter back to the Planning Commission for a new hearing. That gathering, held earlier this month, also drew many neighbors and nearby residents who spoke in opposition to the zoning change.
In the end, while Planning Department staff had recommended approval of the request, the commission voted 6-1 to forward it to the Ordinance Committee with no recommendation.
All of that led to the Ordinance Committee’s Nov. 9 meeting, which featured nearly an hour of public comment along with remarks from Casale, his attorney, K. Joseph Shekarchi, and Edward Pimentel, a land use consultant employed by the applicant.
The city’s Comprehensive Plan and future land use map became a central focus of the debate.
Casale’s Sage Drive property, while currently zoned as A-80, is listed in the Comprehensive Plan as recommended for rezoning to A-20. The vast majority of Alpine Estates is zoned as A-20, which requires a minimum lot size of 20,000 square feet rather than the 80,000 square foot minimum prescribed under A-80.
The Comprehensive Plan itself – a state-mandated guide to development in the city – was last updated in 2012 and is overdue for a review. A number of residents argued the fact that the plan is in need of an update means it cannot be relied on as a guide for zoning requests like Casale’s.
“Please help me understand how in good conscience we could recommend this zone change and continue to recklessly follow an outdated Comprehensive Plan, a plan that continually outlines concerns about rapid growth in this same area?” Sage Drive resident Janice Cataldo said.
Vincent McCrystal, another resident of Sage Drive, said even prior to the latest iteration of the Comprehensive Plan being created, neighbors had opposed proposals to switch the Sage Drive property in question from A-80 to A-20. That, he said, made the inclusion of that change as a recommendation in the plan upsetting to many residents. He also pointed to the opposition neighbors of the area voiced earlier this year to a similar zoning change proposal on Pepper Mill Lane, which was withdrawn before being heard by the Ordinance Committee.
Susan Bucci, also a Sage Drive resident, noted that Alpine Estates has just a single point of egress onto Scituate Avenue. She said she fears approving Casale’s zoning change would “create a domino effect,” leading to denser development on other nearby properties and exacerbating congestion.
“How does this benefit the community? This is the question we continue to ask ourselves. It doesn’t,” Caraway Drive resident Christin Narcissi said. “It benefits the financial gain of this individual landowner solely. A landowner who has tried multiple times to meet with us, and becomes hostile and threatening when we express our concerns politely.”
Added Lindsey Delpreit of Dove Court: “It’s not about us not wanting development for the city. We fully support the development on this land, as it’s zoned, and what future growth might look like, but we’re opposed to mass development and expansion of A-20 … I beg you. Listen to us, hear us and oppose this rezoning.”
Casale and his representatives offered a sharply different take.
Pimentel asserted that the Comprehensive Plan makes the correct zoning for the property clear. He also downplayed concerns over a “domino effect” from granting the change.
“I know there’s been a lot of testimony about the Pandora’s box of development. I’m just telling you, the law’s the law. You get to seek a zone change if you can argue consistency with the Comprehensive Plan,” he told committee members. “To say that a parcel out in the midst of Western Cranston at an A-80 zoning designation can just come along and seek to be rezoned to A-20 and it’s that easy is just incorrect. You have to show consistency with the Comprehensive Plan.”
Pimentel also said Casale’s plan is actually to create house lots of roughly 40,000 square feet, or about an acre, rather than 20,000 square feet.
“If there was an A-40 designation, he would have sought that, but it doesn’t exist,” he said.
Shekarchi, who in addition to his work as an attorney serves as speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, also suggested fears of setting a negative precedent through the zoning change were overblown.
“I want to stress … that this is not a domino effect. The law, not the emotion, the law is quite clear,” he said.
He added: “We are asking for four houses. That’s all we’re asking for. He’s entitled to four. He wants to have the same zoning that everybody else has and have eight houses. That’s all it is. This isn’t a takeover of the school system. This isn’t a takeover of traffic. This is asking for four additional houses to match what everybody else has.”
Casale, in his remarks, struck a different tone – one that drew the ire of council members and residents.
“I truly believe that jealousy and selfishness is the root of this opposition,” he said, although he added: “I did not come here tonight to attack the character of anyone. I came here to discuss the facts and merits of this application.”
Casale asserted that he and his brother would not realize a profit if they made the needed investments to extend Sage Drive and could only build and sell the four houses currently allowed.
He told council members that he and his brother had considered two courses of action in the event the zoning change were to be denied – a lawsuit against the city, or the pursuit of an alternative use for the property, specifically a religious building or a “livestock farm.”
While he said legal counsel was optimistic about prospects of a court case, he and his brother have “decided against the lawsuit and instead we will exercise our option for the livestock farm.” A check of the schedule of uses outlined in the city’s zoning ordinance does show agriculture as a by-right use in the A-80 zone, although a commercial operation would require additional approvals.
Casale also framed the issue in starkly political terms, essentially threatening council members with being responsible for the presence of farm animals in a residential neighborhood were his zoning change to fail.
“To be clear, I understand politics and that some council members may be concerned about votes in the Alpine ward,” he said. “You have a small group of opposing neighbors for the zone change that may pose a threat at election time. However, you also have 350 residents in Alpine that will be inheriting a livestock farm as their neighbor. That is your choice you collectively make. We seriously considered the legal option available to us if our application for A-20 is denied. We believe we can bring suit against the city of Cranston for damages and legal fees.”
During their discussion ahead of the vote, several council members responded sharply to Casale’s remarks. They also largely echoed the sentiments expressed by neighbors who spoke during public comment.
“Being in Ward 4, these are my constituents. When they come out in this number this many times, I think they need to be heard … I don’t appreciate being threatened with votes from a livestock farm in order to get your own way. I don’t think that’s the way to do business,” Ward 4 Councilman Richard Campopiano.
The councilman also called the concern over impacts on classroom sizes a “serious issue.”
Reilly called Casale’s tone “mind-boggling.”
“I was floored, absolutely floored to have an applicant come up and threaten this body,” he said, later adding: “We are not here to line people’s pockets. We are here to make sure we have a good city for everybody … I don’t care if the house is worth $500,000. I’m still going to stand up for them when somebody comes and tries to bully them, threaten them, to earn a dollar.”
Added Citywide Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli: “I don’t take kindly to the threats of votes to get reelected, because I really don’t care if I get reelected if I’m just going to do a bad job … I would just say that is not very professional, and that no one appreciates it.”
Ward 2 Councilwoman Aniece Germain, the sole dissenting vote on the negative recommendation for the zoning change, shared her thoughts after asking a series of questions to Planning Director Jason Pezzullo. She cited the existing Comprehensive Plan’s recommendation for the zoning change on the Sage Drive property, even as she said she was “not happy” with Casale’s tone.
“We all have emotion, we have feelings, I understand. But at the same time, we have to follow the laws. We have to do what is right according to the law,” she said.
Germain also raised the city’s need for more housing stock, and said the four additional homes in Alpine Estates that would be provided through the zoning change, while a modest amount, would open up new avenues for families to stay in the city as they grow and enjoy financial success.
“I think we cannot win everything. Nothing is perfect. But as you love Cranston … we all love it,” she said, adding: “I will vote yes because I want people to stay.”
There were also multiple calls for action to address the Comprehensive Plan. Reilly called it an “ambiguous, vague, out of date, and just unacceptable” document “that opens us up to spot zoning whenever it’s available.”
“Western Cranston has a beautiful rural atmosphere. That should be what the comprehensive plan is focused on, not packing [houses] in … Let’s not kick this can anymore. This Comprehensive Plan needs to be done,” he added.
Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas said the Comprehensive Plan “definitely needs some work” and referenced a grant that has been obtained to assist with the effort.
Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan also called for a new look at staffing levels in the Planning Department, given the scale of the Comprehensive Plan review and the volume of other work that goes through that office.
“The comprehensive plan needs to get going … We also need to have a functionally staffed Planning Department,” he said.
Pezzullo, for his part, said planning staff does not view the “domino effect” concerns as being practical.
“Western Cranston is not this vast open area of open spaces that are ripe for redevelopment. Much of Western Cranston is already built … There’s not a ton of undeveloped A-80 land left that could even be rezoned,” he said, adding: “The idea that this is a runaway, cascading concept, it just doesn’t hold water, and the analysis shows that.”
In terms of the Comprehensive Plan, Pezzullo said the city’s first iteration of the document was adopted in 1992 and in place for 20 years. That version, he said, was never approved by the state. The update to the plan that is now in place, he said, entailed the use of a consultant and took roughly seven years.
“Why we don’t have a new comprehensive plan is simply, it’s that we haven’t put the resources into it,” he said. “We’re just now getting the resources to begin the process. But it’s a long, tedious process to do the Comprehensive Plan.”
Pezzullo also defended the use of the Comprehensive Plan as a guide for making decisions on issues such as the Sage Drive zoning change, suggesting that disregarding it could have unwanted consequences.
“We rely on the Comprehensive Plan in good times and bad,” he said. “When we don’t want to approve something, we rely on the Comprehensive Plan. If we start going down this road that this comp plan doesn’t matter, we’re going to get burned.”
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