NARRAGANSETT – Residents at a recent town council meeting unequivocally opposed a proposed zoning change at 865 Boston Neck Road, the site of the popular Twin Willows restaurant, that would amend the lot from a residential designation to a commercial one. Members of the public, many from surrounding neighborhoods, said they were concerned about the potential future uses of the property should the zoning amendment be approved. 

“I’m here tonight to voice [property owners’] opposition to the effort to rezone the Twin Willows property,” said attorney Edward Pare, who was representing a number of abutters. “We respectfully ask that you deny this application.”

Presented by the town as a mere oversight in bringing zoning designations into compliance with the town’s comprehensive plan, most recently updated in 2017, the zoning change from residential to commercial would allow for over 100 potential business uses of the property not currently provided on the property. Residents are concerned that the owner of Twin Willows, Pat Dunigan, could sell the property at some point in the future, paving the way for a hotel or other potentially disruptive establishment on the property. 

“This particular agenda item is somewhat of a housekeeping item,” said community development director Michael DeLuca. “Unfortunately one site…was overlooked in the first round of hearings. In a recent meeting with the owner, the issue of correcting the zoning came up and staff realized the oversight.” 

The town’s comprehensive plan is a working document, revised every 10 years, that outlines the structural make up of the town based on public input, use and professional design standards. The plan serves as the town’s primary guidance for public services and zoning designations. The plan, which was approved with the zoning change at the Twin Willows property in 2017, is required to be upheld through local zoning according to state law. Essentially, because the zoning change was approved as part of that 2017 vote endorsing the update to the comprehensive plan, the town is required by law to make the zoning change or otherwise amend the plan if it sees fit. 

Nine other properties, some within the immediate area of Boston Neck Road, also changed land designations as part of the 2017 update. The Narragansett Planning Board, meanwhile, unanimously voted to recommend approval of the zoning change at Twin Willows in a recent meeting. 

But residents are concerned that the potentially massive change was being billed as an administrative error and not acknowledged as possibly changing the use and character of the area with increased traffic and noise in a hypothetical future development. Further, the town confirmed if the zoning change was approved, the property owner could divide the existing lot into four separate, 20,000-square-foot lots, potentially paving the way for three more additional properties on the site under the new commercial zoning designation. 

“I think people are concerned,” said town council president pro tem Susan Cicilline Buonanno. “I do think it should be commercial, a commercial business operates on that property, but what the [future] uses could potentially be is concerning to me. As long as that was a short, tight list, we could ensure people that it’s not going to change to something else down the road.”  

“This particular proposal was not suggested to have any limited list of uses because we are trying at this juncture to just correct an error between the zoning map and the comp plan land use map,” said DeLuca. 

The town’s community development director, meanwhile, outlined reasoning for why the planning board had unanimously recommended approval of the change, which included: 

-promoting the health and safety and general welfare of the town

-provision of a range and intensity of uses appropriate to the character of the town

-promoting a high level of quality design and development

-providing for orderly growth and development according to the comprehensive plan

-promoting the implementation of the comprehensive plan itself

“The context and scale of this development of this targeted parcel lends support to the associated zoning adjustments,” said DeLuca. “In carrying out the zoning change, the town will ensure the comprehensive plan reflects the town’s vision of its future and use it to guide land use decisions.” 

Since the town is proposing the zoning change in order to bring the property into compliance with its zoning classification in the comprehensive plan, the town, not the property owner, is the applicant in petitioning for the amendment. 

DeLuca concluded that the council could explore the option of limiting potential future uses to go along with the zoning change and said he would be happy to direct town staff to begin that work should the council wish to pursue that route. 

Town council president Jesse Pugh said he was concerned about “extreme changes” that could occur at the property in the future. The town council president questioned town employees and legal counsel and deduced that the property’s future uses could be limited should the current owners sell the property with an accompanying clause doing just that in the purchase and sale agreement. 

After numerous residents testified in favor of limiting the property’s potential future uses should a zoning change occur, Pare asked the meeting’s attendees to raise a hand if they did not approve of the amendment. Nearly every audience member raised hands. 

Ultimately, the council unanimously voted to continue the public hearing to the body’s next meeting on Monday, Aug. 16.

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