Woonsocket City Council approves controversial zoning change

Woonsocket City Council approves controversial zoning change

WOONSOCKET – The City Council voted 5-2 on Monday to approve a controversial zoning amendment that has drawn pushback from critics and members of the administration since it was first introduced in January.

The amendment, which requires a formal second passage before taking effect, alters the city’s zoning ordinance to require council approval of any municipal, state or federal use. A municipal use was at the center of the recent controversy over RISE Prep Mayoral Academy and a Superior Court judge’s ruling in January that the school could relocate to a new space on Cumberland Street.

Though the new amendment would not apply retroactively to the RISE Prep case, critics described it as a retaliatory measure that would create unnecessary red tape for potential government projects in the future. Councilor David Soucy, the measure’s most outspoken critic on the council, told fellow councilors he had questions about the amendment’s legality and did not find it a positive change for the city.

“This is an overreaching piece of legislation, it’s an overreaction that sets precedence that we don’t see anywhere else,” he said. “I don’t believe that any community that we know of in this state has such an ordinance that is as far reaching.”

Soucy, who voted against the amendment along with Councilor Julia Brown, expressed concern the measure would make the city a less likely candidate for state and federal projects. He also offered concern it could lead to future lawsuits and the legal costs that accompany them.

“It’s not going to correct the past, but it could certainly hurt us in the future and I worry about that. I worry about that sincerely,” he said.

The amendment’s supporters countered that the measure was not retaliatory in nature, but rather an effort at clarifying and improving the city’s zoning ordinance going forward. In January of 2018, Carl Johnson, the city’s zoning official, issued a ruling, which was later upheld in Superior Court, that RISE Prep Mayoral Academy could operate in a commercial zone as a municipal use. The decision drew criticism from members of the City Council who argued the school was prohibited from commercial zones as a nonprofit educational institution. The dispute escalated into the city’s third lawsuit against the school, which has Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt as head of its board.

“What that revealed is that we have a zoning ordinance with provisions that perhaps aren’t clear enough,” said Councilor James Cournoyer.

Cournoyer, along with Councilor John Ward, described the zoning amendment as “bad but necessary” legislation that would help the city avoid a similar dispute going forward. He also pointed out the city’s zoning ordinance already requires City Council approval for several other categories of use, including compassion centers, live-work units and pallet exchange facilities.

“If this is wrong, it should be wrong for all of it. You can’t have it both ways,” he said.

The amendment drew criticism from the Planning Board, which engaged the services of law firm Partridge Snow and Hahn to offer a legal opinion defending their position that the zoning change was an overreach of council authority and in violation of the city’s comprehensive plan. The opinion, read by Planning Board Chairman Kenneth Finlay, drew questions from City Council President Daniel Gendron, who pointed out the Planning Board does not have the authority to hire an outside lawyer without council approval.

The measure was also opposed by former Director of Planning and Development Joel Mathews, who spoke against it when it was first introduced in January. The dispute with several councilors that followed eventually led to Mathews’ resignation from the department.