standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — Following several revisions designed to address public concerns regarding commercial recreation development zone and right of ways, members of the Town Council have officially approved a 20-year Comprehensive Plan for the town.

During a public hearing and council discussion that lasted over four hours Wednesday evening, councilors made several revisions before unanimously adopting the plan. Among revisions were the addition of language to protect use of commercial recreation zones as recreational space and adjustments to the Comprehensive Plan that identify the Harbor Management Plan as a “living document” that would identify, maintain and protect right-of-way access along the shoreline.

Several council members urged residents to remember that the plan is intended to be a guide for the town, and that other town documents and processes would help further assure that current and future development is appropriate and keeps with the character of the community.

“This isn’t the end. In fact, this is just the beginning,” said Councilor Christopher Duhamel. “Once approved, we need to reevaluate all of our zoning ordinances on subdivision and land development regulations. There’s quite a bit of work that’s teed up for us now.”

The final plan came together, in part, after attorneys for the owners of Winnapaug Country Club and Keep Westerly Green, a group of residents who have raised concerns about the club's expansion plans, were able to come to a compromise on language that would allow for the right of development while protecting the intended use within a Commercial Recreation zone.

There are currently five zones designated as Commercial Recreation in Westerly, including the Misquamicut Club, Winnapaug Country Club, Weekapaug Golf Course, Shelter Harbor Golf Course  and the Westerly Yacht Club.

Attorneys Kelly Fracassa and Gregory Massad, who represent Keep Westerly Green, each said Wednesday that after considerable negotiation and compromise, the group and Winnapaug Country Club were able develop language that would help address both the concerns of developers and those who wished to see the golf course remain recreational space only, rather than being split into a subdivision for development.

In October, the council turned the Commercial Recreation part 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. The effort eventually led representatives of both groups to meet and develop language that would protect recreational use while also preserving an owner’s rights to further develop the property.

“The Commercial Recreation zoning district, which consists of approximately 760 acres (or 3.8% of the total land area within the town), is intended for areas that have historically housed commercial recreational facilities, adjacent to residential areas, in order to allow their continued existence subject to reasonable regulations and limitations on future expansion,” the revised plan reads. “Properties in CR zones may include a hotel, provided that the hotel remains accessory to the property, which in all instances shall remain its principal use.”

The proposed revision had initially included language that would have identified golf courses as being eligible for hotels as an accessory to the course, but Council Vice President Suzanne Giorno expressed legal concerns should the town have issues with non-golf properties or designated any other areas as Commercial Recreation zones in the future

Members agreed, after considerable discussion, and the revisions were approved unanimously. Councilors Duhamel and Caswell Cooke Jr. each recused themselves from the voting on Commercial Recreation zones.

Numerous residents also expressed concerns over the provisions regarding right-of-way access to the shoreline. Westerly resident Ben Weber, who was supported by several members of the public, expressed concerns that the language in the Comprehensive Plan was confusing and did little, if anything, to protect public rights of way.

“The entire plan caters to public interest groups that have for decades been privatizing public right of ways and lands for that matter under the guise of conservation,” he said.

But council members and Assistant Town Solicitor Scott D. Levesque said the Comprehensive Plan was never intended to be a regulatory document and changes or further language would only serve to create more confusion.

Councilor Karen A. Cioffi expressed concerns that, based on comments such as Weber’s and the convoluted nature of the text, it was important to strengthen the language that specifically identifies the Harbor Management Plan as the regulatory document regarding the community’s shoreline rights of way.

Cioffi and Giorno each noted that, with the reference, the town can now address needs and concerns more directly and regularly through that management plan.

No more delays

Residents also expressed frustration during the hearing that the measure would pass without further continuation or more in-depth revisions, noting that public participation has been hindered by the pandemic. They requested, to no avail, that the council continue the public hearing at least one additional meeting and even consider longer delays to host additional workshops.

Levesque told the council that such delays could prove detrimental to the development of a working Comprehensive Plan. He noted that the town has worked with the state, as required by Rhode Island statutes, and further changes could make it difficult to get to a point where the plan could be passed.

“The more that this document is delayed, the more the statistics and information within it become invalid, the more the state will push back giving us new issues to address, and the more their requirements would likely change as well, making our bar move higher and higher up.”

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