2015-10-22 / Front Page

Condos Clear First Hurdle

By James Merolla

Does Middletown need 37 new condos for those 55 and up? Does it need a new development near a prized fresh water brook and wetlands? As proposed, will the developer’s plan clear a half dozen permit, zoning, planning, and environmental hurdles?

The Middletown Town Council kept a plan alive to build 37 1,500-square-foot condominiums on 11 acres north of Oliphant Lane off West Main Road by voting 4-2 to approve a change in zoning from R-20 to higher density R-10. The vote of Monday, Oct. 19, was the first step in what officials said would be a long approval process.

Council President Robert J. Sylvia, Vice President Rocky Kempenaar, and council members Rick Lombardi and Barbara VonVillas voted in favor; council members M. Theresa Santos and Antone Viveiros were against the change. Councilor Paul Rodrigues did not attend the meeting.

This was the second public hearing on the project to build 37 condos with two-car garages on lots owned by David Lawrence and William Gill in the Thelma Lane area just north of Arruda Terrace and abutting Bailey Brook. About 20 abutters attended, and they, along with council members, raised questions about water runoff, wetland mitigation, drainage, traffic, real estate values, and wildlife.

Attorney Jay Lynch, representing the owners, said the proposal must clear many hurdles, including Planning Board and Zoning Board approvals, D.E.M. permits, D.O.T. reviews, and more. Lynch said that if any one of the boards or agencies reviewing the plan shot it down, it would not fly.

“This is only the first step in any development plan. This isn’t the end of anything," said project engineer Chris Duhamel.

Beyond Town Council approval of the zoning change, Duhamel spoke of wetlands permitting, physical alteration permitting, Planning Board and public works review, water and sewer reviews, police and fire safety approval, development reviews through both the planning and zoning boards and a watershed protection permit.

“Those many steps have to be approved to satisfy these many agencies. Any one of these permit [denials] could upend the whole project and ensure it would not be built,” said Duhamel.

Of particular concern to neighbors is Bailey Brook, a critical tributary that leads to the Newport County drinking supply. Abutters are concerned that any development will make an area prone to flooding and water runoff even worse and will ruin wetlands where animal life abounds.

Lynch tried to assuage these concerns by saying that the work would actually improve stormwater runoff. Duhamel said the project will require the developers to analyze and water discharge, and collect and remove any pollutants before runoff is discharged into the watershed.

“We will determine exactly where that flooding is,” said Duhamel. “We will delineate that as a protective flood plain. Flooding is a key component in the analysis. We will improve upon that flooding [and] improve water quality discharge to the watershed.”

Lynch proposed several limitations on the zoning change – he said the property would only be used for the 55-plus condominium project; that traffic would access it only by Thelma Lane; and that Arruda Terrace would be gated and locked, available only to fire and police in emergencies.

Viveiros and several residents spoke publicly about stormwater runoff. The councilor thought any construction would make the water problem worse, not better.

“It’s fine to say, ‘We are going to do this, we are going to do that,’ and then, when it’s done there are many problems,” said Viveiros, who voted against the zoning change. He was afraid the town would be “overrun with development. Personally, I’d like to see the whole plan amended to match the zoning, rather than see the zoning amended to fit this plan.”

He called the plan a Pandora’s box and wanted Middletown’s comprehensive plan to take precedence. “Our West Main Road already has a bad name and I don’t want to see the rest of the town follow suit,” he added.

Residents Clarence Rego and Joanne Cassese said that old machinery and equipment has been buried on the property in past years.

“We have seen some things that would curl the hair on the back of your neck,” said Cassese. “Things are buried there that shouldn’t be buried there.”

“When you start building, you’re going to start pushing more water to me,” added Rego. He also mentioned a forgotten cemetery on the property that needs to be addressed.

But Jamie Moore, an appraiser brought in to assess property values, intimated that the condos would “be built in the $350,000 mark” and might actually raise, not lower, nearby property values.

In convincing the majority of the council to vote the matter forward, Lynch said the town would have much more control over the project than others approved in the past or if single family homes were proposed.

“If, for whatever reason, at any point, we fall over a hurdle, the zoning goes back to R-20 and this goes away,” said Lynch.

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