2016-03-31 / Front Page

Big Box Restrictions on Agenda

By Olga Enger

The question of whether officials will restrict big box development in Middletown may soon be answered.

“I believe we have more than enough big boxes in this community,” said Council President Robert Sylvia.

Today, the maximum building footprint ordinance (§ 605) restricts structures to 35,000 square feet in commercial zones, but a provision allows for exceptions with a special use permit. Responding to concerns raised by officials last fall, the Middletown Planning Board submitted a recommendation to stiffen the rules on expansion.

“Right now, as things currently exist, in order to alter a non-conforming building, you have to get a special use permit,” said Town Solicitor Peter Regan.

Sixteen buildings today exceed the limit; the largest is Home Depot at 112,000 square feet, while Christmas Tree Shop is the smallest exception at 36,000 square feet.

The Planning Board recommended the town remove the provision for special use permits, requiring developers to instead seek a variance, which is more restrictive than a special use permit. Council plans to vote on the change at their April 4 meeting.

“Concern has been raised that this provision does not adequately protect the town from potential big box retail development,” wrote Middletown Planning Board Chair Charlene Rose-Cirillo in a one-page memo dated Jan. 28.

A special use permit (§ 902) may be granted as long as the development does not reduce surrounding property values, create a nuisance, endanger public health, or permanently change the appropriate use of the property and is compatible with the Comprehensive Community Plan.

A variance, however, requires the developer show a hardship caused by the unique characteristics of the land or structure.

“Under state law, people always have a right to come in and ask for relief,” said Regan.

The Planning Board also plans to draft an ordinance that will promote mixed-use, village style development as an alternative to large, single-use retail complexes.

“While we want to encourage economic development, we want to do it in a way that preserves quality of life for Middletown residents,” said Sylvia.

At the March 21 meeting, council delayed a vote on the issue after Sylvia made a last minute amendment that would allow existing buildings to follow the current rules and expand with a special use permit.

“If a business left us, and a new business wanted to come in, we don’t want to contribute to vacating businesses. Let’s face it, we don’t want to drive people out,” he said.

At least two councilors were hesitant with Sylvia’s proposed change.

“I have a problem with allowing someone going beyond the 35,000 just because they are here,” said Councilor Barbara VonVillas.

“I happen to agree with Councilor VonVillas. We have to set our priorities so we are fair,” said Councilor Antone Viveiros.

A temporary hold on big box development was adopted in January, when council unanimously voted on a moratorium on allowing buildings to exceed 35,000 square feet in retail zones.

Although some residents claimed the move was a reaction to the news that local hotel and hospitality owners Peter and Harry Kyriakedes had bought 71 acres of undeveloped land west of West Main Road, Sylvia maintained that was not the case.

After the Kyriakedes purchased the land for $5.35 million, they submitted plans for a large shopping center with three big box stores, one as large as 177,000 square feet, which would be the largest footprint in the town. Although tenants were not named in plans, Target was among those rumored to be interested in the location.

In November, a Newport Superior Court judge ruled the location is exempt from the moratorium because their plans were submitted to the town before the hold was in place.

Referencing a famous 1939 movie, Councilor Theresa Santos said she was sad to witness the decline of Middletown’s open space.

“Middletown’s land has gone with the wind. That’s all I have to say. It’s gone…it’s gone.”

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