WESTERLY — A proposed condominium development on East Avenue, conceptual plans to add housing to a golf course in Misquamicut, an approved development on South Drive, and a medical marijuana facility in Bradford all took the Town Council by surprise and led to the establishment of a Planning Board liaison position, members of the council say.
Town Council President Sharon Ahern, during a recent council meeting, discussed her idea for a council liaison to the board. She then appointed Councilor Philip Overton to the position. Creation of the new liaison came not long after the Planning Board started hearings on a proposed condominium development on a 7.6-acre site at 165 East Ave.
Ahern and Councilor Karen Cioffi each live on East Avenue with their respective families and both have raised questions, during Planning Board hearings, about the proposed development's potential effect on the neighborhood. They also submitted comments in writing.
In a strongly worded email addressed to members of the Planning Board, its former Chairman James Hall IV and Town Planner Nancy Letendre, Cioffi raised questions about what she called a "flawed" process, saying proposed developments should be "announced to the public."
"The council should be notified and the public should be made aware. Waiting to hear from the rumor mill is not acceptable. Waiting for the newspaper to report [it] is not acceptable," Cioffi said in her Feb. 12 message. The Sun first wrote about the East Avenue project in late December.
During the hearing, Cioffi and many of her neighbors raised questions about the density of the project and its effect on traffic. Ahern raised similar concerns, including questions about the suitability of the site, which slopes downward toward Beach Street in the same way as the South Drive site where erosion and storm runoff were a problem.
"The proposal at 165 East Ave. shares many of the issues on South Drive, to name a few: slope, drainage, soil erosion, a new road, and the fallacy that 'staging development' cures all ills. South Drive is a problem and always will be because it never should have been approved. Please do not make the same mistake here," Ahern said in written comments to the board.
On Friday, Ahern said she suggested and created the Planning Board council liaison position after learning from the town's lawyers that other municipalities in the state have established similar positions. She said she was motivated to create the position because of the East Avenue proposal as well as a medical marijuana facility in Bradford that is locked in a cease-and-desist skirmish with the town due to allegedly failing to follow aspects of its approved plan. She also pointed to concerns about the Winnapaug Country Club's discussion of adding a hotel or housing that came up during hearings on revisions to the Comprehensive Plan.
"Over the years what has happened, and I don't know if it's because of too many sources of information or not enough, but I feel the public and the council in particular are not getting enough notice about some of the major developments going on around town," Ahern said.
In general, Ahern said, making residents aware of new proposed developments is particularly important as undeveloped land in the town becomes more and more scarce.
"As we are heading toward being 85% built out around town, I think that we have to get as much notice out there as possible," Ahern said.
Overton, on Friday, said he was happy to become the council's first liaison to the Planning Board.
"I think the council was concerned about the neighborhoods that have been upset about various proposed developments over the past year and wanted someone to be their eyes and ears so they don't get caught off guard," Overton said.
Overton discussed preservation and Winnapaug Country Club's proposal during the campaign leading up to the November election.
"I've been pretty vocal about how I don't want to see Westerly urbanized," Overton said.
As of Friday, Overton had attended one Planning Board meeting. "It was very professional and well run," Overton said.
As liaison, Overton said he plans to attend as many Planning Board meetings as he can and to monitor the board's minutes if he is unable to attend a meeting and then report on significant items to the council.
Cioffi was not immediately available to comment for this article.