2017-05-04 / Around Town

Council to Reconsider Polo Center Zoning Change

By Olga Enger

A decision by Middletown Town Council to rezone a parcel of land next to the Polo Center on Aquidneck Avenue in Middletown will be reconsidered, again.

In a 4-2 vote, council approved changing the zoning classification from medium density residential traffic sensitive (R-20A) to limited business traffic sensitive (LBA), at the ordinance's second reading, held April 17. Vice Chair Paul Rodrigues and Councilor Dennis Turano opposed the request. Councilor Antone Viveiros was absent. The zoning change was approved for the purpose of expanding the exiting Polo Center.

To date, council has held four public hearings on the request, totaling more than 10 hours of meetings. At each hearing, a large showing of neighbors has argued that the land should remain residential, to preserve the neighborhood and property values.

After supporting the zoning change, Councilor Theresa Santos later questioned if council should impose restrictions on the types of tenants that would be allowed to rent space on the property. David Bazarsky has owned the Polo Center since 1984, and rents office space to medical professionals and light retail businesses such as hair stylists, a dry-cleaning business, a yoga studio and a bank. Santos stated concern that the town had now opened the doors to businesses she considers unfavorable, such as tattoo parlors, adult stores, pubs or fast-food restaurants. To prohibit his leasing to undesirable businesses, however, the council must hold another public hearing, scheduled for the June 5 Town Council meeting.

"Under [Robert’s Rules of Order], if you alter or amend the proposed zoning amendment, that amendment has to be made during a public hearing," said Town Solicitor Peter Regan. "At this point, the public hearing is closed, so if you were to proceed on it now, you would have no other options than to vote it up or down." Council quickly approved reopening the public hearing in a 7-0 vote at the May 1 Town Council meeting, with no discussion other than the solicitor's explanation of the process. No one from the audience spoke.

This is not the first time the council has reevaluated this zoning change.

In November 2015, after a four-hour hearing that stretched until 1 a.m., Middletown Town Council denied the request to rezone the empty lot in a 4-3 vote. Council President Robert Sylvia, Rodrigues, Viveiros and Santos voted down the plan. Former Vice President Rocky Kempenaar and Councilors Barbara Von- Villas and Rick Lombardi voted in favor of the proposal.

At that time, however, Bazarsky did not specify his intended use for the lot. After appealing in court, the judge recommended the land owner and his attorney Robert Silva return to council and disclose their plans. They initiated a second request before Town Council on March 6, and specified that the zoning change was to expand the existing Polo Center. Bazarsky said a growing demand for medical office space was driving the request. He did not name potential tenants.

Silva's main argument since the initial request was made, was that the town's Comprehensive Plan specifies the parcel should be zoned limited business, and therefore the zoning ordinance is out of compliance. Under Rhode Island general law § 45-24-50, a “city or town must bring the zoning ordinance or amendment into conformance with its comprehensive plan."

Comprehensive planning is a process that defines community goals and development through public workshops and meetings. Once adopted, it is the responsibility of the Town Council to review sections of the zoning code that are out of compliance with the plan, which is an ongoing process that takes several years. The Planning Board may modify the Comprehensive Plan up to four times annually.

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