WESTERLY — With news of a potential agreement between the owners of Winnapaug Country Club and members of Keep Westerly Green, a group of residents who have raised concerns about the club's expansion plans, the Town Council has decided to continue a public hearing on revisions to the Comprehensive Plan to Jan. 20.
The council voted unanimously to continue the hearing Monday after lawyers, residents and other interested citizens discussed the revisions. The comments focused mostly on parts of the plan related to the country club's golf course and rights of way to the shoreline.
Kelly Fracassa and Gregory Massad, lawyers for Keep Westerly Green, both poked holes in the Planning Board's attempt to come up with new language in the section of the plan dealing with commercial recreation land uses such as golf courses. In October, the Town Council turned the commercial recreation and rights-of-way parts of the revised plan back to the Planning Board with the hope the board could develop new language that would satisfy both members of Keep Westerly Green and the owners of Winnapaug Country Club as well as citizens who expressed concerns about rights of way.
The Planning Board's most recent recommendation calls for the following statement to be included: "In the future and only to the extent that they do not substantially compromise the primary recreational use, mixed uses may be considered (such as hospitality and residential use) in order to ensure the continued vitality of commercial recreation as an economic sector."
Fracassa said the provision proposed by the Planning Board is unclear.
"We don't want a Comprehensive Plan amendment that is either so open-ended or causes significant changes that the resulting zoning ordinance is going to be a disaster, and that's pretty much what we have," Fracassa said.
The proposed language, Fracassa said, is "antithetical to recreational land uses and the plan's call for open space preservation."
Winnapaug Country Club currently has "limited expansion rights," Massad said. "Their rights are not being threatened — they do not have a right to the language they are requesting in the Comprehensive Plan. They are asking for a favor ... for the town to help them develop their property."
Thomas J. Liguori, the lawyer representing Winnapaug Country Club, said the proposal that he said was submitted late Monday morning had the potential to resolve differences between the two sides "or substantially limit the amount of debate."
The country club's owners, Liguori said, first approached the Planning Board and discussed their hope to expand the facility into a golf resort. Over time, and as conversations with the board continued, Liguori said, the discussion turned to a need for housing for hospitality workers and returning former motels and hotels currently being used as hospitality worker housing to hospitality uses. The golf course owners are willing to go back to their original resort concept, but need direction from town officials, Liguori said.
Councilors Caswell Cooke Jr. and Christopher Duhamel are recusing from the commercial recreation portion of the plan discussion and said they will not vote on that section of the plan. Cooke announced his intent to recuse previously, saying he lives along the Winnapaug Country Club golf course. Duhamel, on Monday, said he has a potential "business conflict" related to the country club.
Town Attorney William Conley Jr. announced that the town had received correspondence from a lawyer who suggested Councilor Philip Overton might have a conflict because Overton stated that he would prefer to see the country club property remain as open space during the campaign leading up to the election last November. Conley said Overton's comments during the campaign do not constitute a conflict of interest.
The council also heard from advocates for easier access to the shoreline who said the revised plan lacks, even after new proposed language from the Planning Board, adequate protections for existing rights of way. Members of the public also said the plan does not properly convey a commitment to finding new rights of way. Anthony Palazzolo, a North Stonington resident, called proposed new revisions by the Planning Board "inadequate in that they still omit details on specific actions the town intends to take."
Inconsistencies between proposed revisions to the Comprehensive Plan and the town's Harbor Management Plan are also a problem, said Ben Weber, a resident who has talked with the Town Council about shoreline access for several months.
James Hall IV, Planning Board chairman, noted that the Comprehensive Plan is subject to periodic updates. "What we're trying to do is take a living document and get it as close to perfect as possible with the understanding it will continue to grow and develop," Hall said.
One resident, Fred Sculco, asked the council to remove references to "form-based code" and "smart growth" from proposed revisions to the Comprehensive Plan, saying the terms are unclear and weaken the plan's ability to preserve the character of the town.
The Comprehensive Plan must be detailed and consistent to help the town qualify for competitive competitive grants, said Gina Fuller, a resident and director of the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District.
K. Grant Hutchins, a member of the Keep Westerly Green group, thanked the Town Council for restoring his faith in government during a time of turmoil.
"To see democracy in action at the local level gives one hope," Hutchins said.