standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — A monthslong struggle involving town officials and the developer of a 24-unit condominium project planned for South Drive took a significant step toward resolution on Tuesday when the Planning Board voted 4-1 to approve an amendment to its original decision approving the project.

The amendment sets out what the board's lawyer, Scott D. Levesque, called a "different phasing" approach to construction than the one outlined in the board's original decision which was made in March 2018. The amendment also sets out a plan for rock crushing on the 7-acre parcel at 19 South Drive, where South Drive Development Inc. plans to build the complex. The company is an affiliate of Charlestown-based Sacco Enterprises Inc.

"The site now resembles nothing like the [original] decision envisioned it would be. It has been completely denuded and work is being done throughout. The infrastructure is being developed in one phase rather than phases that were envisioned,"  Levesque said.

Steven Surdut, the lawyer who represents South Drive Development, said he disagreed with Levesque's characterization of the site having been "completely denuded" but said he and his client were hoping to bring the project to completion.

Under the amendment approved by the board on Tuesday, construction going forward will occur in three phases and the company will be required to plant grass seed throughout the project area as a means to stabilize the property and assist with stormwater management — an ongoing concern of town officials and neighbors because of the property's steep slope.

The amendment also requires that some of the low- and moderate-priced units be built throughout each phase of the project. The first phase includes construction of 10 housing units, including three that will be deed-restricted for low- and moderate-income people.

The developer also agreed, in the proposed amendment, to inspect the site after every rainstorm and to submit a report to the town planner and engineer on erosion and sediment control after each storm. The developer also agreed to submit weekly inspection reports to the two officials regardless of whether it has rained. Surdut said the inspection and report protocol had already started and that erosion control efforts worked properly during recent heavy rainstorms.

The second phase, according to the draft amendment, will include the construction of nine housing units, including two deed-restricted units for low- to moderate- income people. The developer also agreed that no building permits or zoning certificates will be issued for the second phase unless all units in the first phase have received certificates of occupancy.

The third phase will include the construction of four units, including the final low- and moderate-income unit, which cannot be the last unit built. No building permit will be issued for the final unit until the final low- and moderate-income unit is built. The develop will also be required to install and finish a course of pavement and compete all infrastructure before a certificate of occupancy will be issued for the final unit.

The board agreed to a rock crushing protocol that differed from the one originally discussed by Levesque, who eventually said he was concerned his proposal was not practical. Under the approved protocol, crushing can never occur between Memorial Day and Labor Day and must be completed before the third phase of construction begins.

Board member Christopher Lawlor asked Surdut why the developer did not follow the original approved decision. Surdut responded by saying that he notified the town staff of concerns about the decision but never received a response. Eventually, he said, his client embarked on site work. Surdut also said the developer followed the approved plan set, which is  a set of documents that are separate and distinct from the board's written decision. Surdut and his boss, attorney George Comolli, have said the plan set is the controlling legal document, not the written decision

Levesque disputed Surdut's claim and said the town would not concede that the staff had not responded to communications. Levesque also said the town believes aspects of the plan set and notes on it were not followed.

Board member Jason Parker, who was town planner early in the project's planning stage, said the board's original decision included several conditions the board expected to be followed. Without those conditions, he said, the board might have denied its original approval — a move he said likely would have survived judicial scrutiny.

"We still don't have a clear answer as to how we got here. We can't get confirmation that the requirements that we put in the decision were final," Parker said. "It's extremely confusing...and now we're left here trying to sort out something that, honestly, isn't fair to this board and it isn't fair to the public. A lot of  time and effort went into the decision. The requirements and the phasing were put in for a reason, there were a number of concerns with the original application."

The project was submitted and approved under the state's comprehensive permit law, which allows developers leeway from local zoning density requirements in return for a pledge that a percentage of housing units will meet low and moderate income guidelines.

Hall, Lawlor, and board members Richard Constantine and Justin Hopkins voted in favor of the ammendment. Parker voted against it. Board member Catherine DeNoia did not attend.

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