By DALE P. FAULKNER
Sun Staff Writer
WESTERLY — More than 18 months after Superstorm Sandy wiped out their beloved Maria’s Seaside Cafe, the Bellone family is a step closer to rebuilding.
To replace the Atlantic Avenue institution, the family has conceived The Cabanas, a 34,486-square-foot hotel, restaurant, and lounge complex. On Tuesday the Planning Board unanimously approved the project’s Combined Master and Preliminary Plan. The Zoning Board of Review granted a special use permit for the project in May, leaving administrative approvals as the final bureaucratic hurdles.
Following the Planning Board’s approval, John Bellone, who owns the property with his parents, Nicolo and Maria, said that while there is no firm start date the family is hopeful that work could begin in the fall.
The storm’s destructive surge sent water, sand, and other debris into the main restaurant building, rendering it useless. An adjacent building that housed part of the restaurant was less severely damaged and continues to be used for five hotel suites. The suites are fully booked and operational for the current summer season, as they were last summer, Bellone said.
The Planning Board reached its decision quickly. Chairman Jack Felber said that a “pre-agenda meeting” with Thomas Liguori, the lawyer representing the Bellones, revealed the “application to be meticulously complete.”
Resident Geary Maher, whose property at 5 Lawton Ave. is behind the Bellones’ property, asked whether lighting for the project would be designed to shine away from residential areas. Robert Clark, Planning Board member and an electrician by trade, said he reviewed the plans for the town’s Architectural Review Board and was satisfied that the lighting would not disturb the neighbors.
Liguori, responding to a different question from Maher, assured him that a row of vegetation at the rear of the Bellones’ property, wiped out by the storm, would be replanted to provide a barrier to residential properties in the area.
The board’s approval came with conditions that Town Planner Marilyn Shellman would grant final approval to the project as well as to a proposal to merge the Bellones’ two lots at 132 and 134 Atlantic Ave.
The board also asked the Bellones to work with the town to reach an agreeable approach to plantings near town-owned property off Montauk Avenue. Liguori said the Bellones are hoping to discourage the historic practice of people parking on that section of Montauk Avenue.
Liguori praised the town staff for their work with him, the Bellones, and other project professionals. For about two months before submitting plans to he town, Liguori met regularly with Shellman, Zoning Solicitor Jack Payne Jr., Amy Grzybowski, director of code enforcement, Building Official David Murphy, and Zoning Officer Jason Parker to bring John Bellone’s vision to a standard that meets those set out by the town’s zoning ordinance, Liguori said.
“This one application was the one that was most scrutinized, reviewed, and participated in by town staff from the very beginning,” Liguori said.
The process was made easier, Liguori said, as the planning sessions took place in a new glass-walled meeting room adjacent to the zoning and building department offices in Town Hall. “It eliminates the view that we’re huddling in the back room,” Liguori said.
David Panciera, Planning Board member, said the approach employed by the town and the Bellones should serve as a model.
“Sometimes there’s pessimism about the efficiency of the town dealing with major applications and I think that we can do it without short circuiting due process in any way if we put our minds to it,” Panciera said.