SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Members of the planning board and Matunuck residents voiced concern and opposition on Thursday night to a potential condo development that would far exceed current zoning.
Before hearing from the applicant, Planning Board Chair Maria H. Mack asked members of the audience, by a show of hands, how many were present for the pre-application concept plan review for Matunuck Beach Road Condos. Nearly every hand in the crowded town council chambers shot up.
The potential development would introduce a 20-unit condominium complex off Matunuck Beach Road, but Mack stressed to members out in the audience that such a build was still “very conceptual in nature.”
“The clock is not yet ticking,” she said. “They have not done any kind of extensive engineering plans. [This stage is] meant to be a conversation.”
The pre-application allows the board to have a back-and-forth dialogue with the applicant and give recommendations early on before they’ve invested any serious time or money. The meeting does not require any kind of a vote from the board.
According to Principal Planner Kaela Gray, under state law, comprehensive permits allow applicants to ask for a coordinated review when they agree to designate 25 percent of the units as affordable for low or moderate income for the community. The coordinated review allows them to seek relief from some zoning ordinances or development regulations.
The applicant, Steve DeSimone, expressed enthusiasm to hear what people thought of the plans at the start of the meetings. Senior Project Manager Audie Osgood of DiPrete Engineering said they were looking to use the feedback to “hopefully develop a comprehensive plan that’s something everyone can support and we can turn into a good development.”
The site, which occupies part of a sensitive, protected wetland area, would only allow construction on a little more than half of the total area – roughly three of five acres are buildable, according to Osgood. Although the lot is unusually shaped, he said the topography at the site is gentle and would allow enough space for the 200 ft. setback to the wetlands.
Planning Board Member F. Steven DiMasi opened up comments from the board, however, with his disapproval of the size of the development in such a “sensitive area.” The project would be much better in the center of town, he said, and didn’t fit in with the character of the neighborhood.
DiMasi suggested DeSimone look at the Matunuck Village Plan in order to get a sense of a more appropriate project for the area. The plan, which looks at the unique characteristics of the village, “addresses key issues of development, preservation and community character.”
“It’s a seaside area, it’s cottages – and the intensification of this development on this site just seems very excessive to me and not a good fit,” DiMasi said.
Members of the audience burst into applause, but DiMasi also stressed that DeSimone has property rights and should be able to do something with the site – just not anything to the scale he’s proposing.
Planning Board Vice Chair John A. Riendeau and member Elise Torello also agreed with DiMisa that the size of the condo development was far out of scale for what can be built on that site, and out of character with the community.
“I have so many concerns I don’t even know where to start,” Torello said. “There’s a reason there’s a Salt Pond Special Area Management Plan for this region. It’s very sensitive, environmentally.”
“The intensity is just completely unacceptable for this spot,” she added.
Mack said she “wholeheartedly agrees” with her fellow board members, and warned against developers who she said sometimes seek comprehensive permits in order to circumvent zoning ordinances.
“Clearly, had you done any research, read the Matunuck Village Plan, read a comprehensive plan, you would see that this is a very poor fit indeed for this site,” she told DeSimone. “The CRMC should have very loudly and clearly said to you that this is developed beyond carrying capacity and it needs a much lighter touch. I would strongly encourage you to go back to the drawing board and start again.”
She also pointed out that the planning board received a letter from the Salt Pond Coalition, a non-profit organization that has been monitoring water quality there for 30 years, coming out against the intensity of the project, which argued that it could exacerbate the environmental issues of the area. Part of the site also falls within the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 100-year floodplain, putting the site in a high-risk area for flooding.
Board member Joe Murphy pointed out that the actual number of units allowable on the site was only six – 14 units less than the proposal.
When members of the board expressed concerns about the potential height of the condos, in order for them to be elevated above the floodplain, DeSimone said he wasn’t setting out to build anything that was against the town’s height limits.
“I’m not going there building skyscrapers – I’m not interested in that,” DeSimone said. “I’m just trying to bring some affordable units into Matunuck. I’d love to keep one. I love the area and I’d like to move.”
Local resident Mary Auclair was one of many residents to stand up and speak out against the development on Thursday night. Like several other residents who also went up to the microphone, her family owned several buildable lots that were later changed to just one buildable lot.
“It’s a sacrifice that many of my neighbors made knowing that it was for the betterment of the community,” she said. “To see someone going on one lot and wanting to build five buildings like that is not in the spirit of the community – it’s just not Matunuck and not right.”
Kimberly and Frank Bumbera, who own two homes in the area and part of the marsh, said they purchased there “because it’s a beautiful, peaceful little slice of heaven for our family.”
“I’m not opposed to people using their land, I’m the child of a property developer,” Kimberly said, “but to propose 20 units in an area that can’t sustain that is, to me, irresponsible.”
The size, she said, was completely overdone and would ruin the entire integrity of the area. Her husband, Frank, said he didn’t “even want to see this project get off the ground.”
Michael Mainelli, who lives on the other side of the marshland on Prospect Road, said that although he thinks the builder would “comply with every town rule in constructing these units, the measure here is ‘does it fit?’”
“I don’t believe it does,” he said. “In fact, with the applicant bringing this concept to the planning board, that borders on arrogance. That’s in your face, and I think it should be voted down and not allowed to proceed, at least at the scope that’s planned here.”
Mack stressed that this is the first time this proposal has ever come before the planning board, and at the pre-application phase, the applicant is only receiving feedback, which she encouraged members of the audience to do.
“This is really the first stage,” she said. “Seeing as we’ve had an amazing turn out this evening, I think all of the information that has come to us will be absorbed, and you heard comments from the board as well, which seem to echo the concerns of the residents as well.”
“You’re here at the right time,” she added.
Mack encouraged everyone to stay posted on the issue, for whenever the applicant may decide to approach the board with an amended plan.