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Zoners let stand decision on St. Francis House that triggered $3 million suit

March 12, 2013

WOONSOCKET – The Zoning Board of Review Monday let stand an earlier decision on developer Gary Fernandes’ plans for St. Francis House that resulted in a $3 million lawsuit against the city.
Superior Court Judge William Carnes remanded the case to the zoning board last fall to clarify the underlying “findings of fact” supporting the decision, and to address allegations of a conflict of interest involving member Allan Rivers, who opposed Fernandes’ plans
City Solicitor Joseph P. Carroll said the panel could have revisited the decision that resulted in the litigation, but only if one of the two members who opposed it disagreed with the findings of fact.
“It didn’t happen,” said Carroll. “Allan Rivers presented the findings of fact, and they were quite comprehensive in my opinion, and Kathy Dumais agreed with them.”
At issue is a series of decisions by the zoning board dating back to 2011, when Fernandes was denied permission to build a greater number of apartments inside the former assisted living center at 167 Blackstone St. than prevailing density restrictions allow. The board has the power to relax those restrictions, but in its most recent vote on the issue, in July 2012, the panel split 3-2 – a majority but still not enough to win approval under zoning rules.
A prominent city developer who has rehabilitated a number of vacant, mill-era properties at risk of becoming eyesores, Fernandes hired land use lawyer Michael Kelly to challenge the decision. Kelly sued on grounds that the zoning board denied his client due process.
Kelly also alleges that Rivers is in a conflict of interest that should prevent him from voting on St. Francis House because he owns property in common with another member, Roland Michaud. Michaud was not a member of the zoning board when, according to court documents, Rivers had inappropriate conversations with him about St. Francis House, but Michaud has since been appointed to serve on the board.
In his ruling last November, Judge Carnes instructed Rivers to address the allegations. The state Ethics Commission has since ruled that Rivers has not committed any offense. Although the decision had already been made public, Rivers “made a presentation” about it during the zoning hearing, as he was instructed to by the court, said Carroll.
Michaud was present during the hearing, but he left Harris Hall while the other members were discussing St. Francis House, Carroll said. The other members who supported Fernandes’ proposal, Chairman Alan Leclaire, Norman Frechette and Richard Masse, remained at the dais.
Reached for comment after the hearing, Fernandes said he was disappointed that the panel did nothing to undo the decision that led to the litigation.
With a substantial portion of the structure’s 22,645 square feet of living space unsuitable for occupancy, St. Francis House remains an unsustainable investment, Fernandes said.
Moreover, he is unable to obtain permanent financing for the property. Because a portion of the building is technically categorized by the insurance industry as abandoned, St. Francis House can be insured only through a costly risk pool.
“How long’s that going to go on?” said Fernandes. “Nothing that’s going on with this building makes any sense.”
Although a majority of the panel voted in favor of Fernandes’ plan, zoning rules require a 4-1 majority for approval. Opponents say Fernandes' proposal, which calls for adding 10 more units to St. Francis House, is in violation of the comprehensive plan and exceeds the density standards for most multi-family residential properties in the neighborhood.
During his recitation on the findings of fact, Rivers defended the ruling, saying it has resulted in little more than “a mere inconvenience” to the applicant.
Kelly predicted that the decision would result in further litigation against the city and vowed to pursue conflict-of-interest charges against Rivers, despite the Ethics Commission’s ruling. Lawyer Joseph Larisa, a special counsel assisting Carroll, was optimistic that the board’s handling of the case would aid in the defense of the litigation, which is pending in Superior Court.
Believed to have been built in the late 1920s, St. Francis House was originally a home for poor Irish women. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence later purchased the site and ran if for years as an affordable assisted living center.
In late 2009, the diocese shuttered the building, saying it could no longer afford the upkeep or the upgrades to the fire suppression system required by the state in the wake of the 2001 inferno at The Station nightclub that left 100 people dead. Fernandes purchased the building from the diocese a short time later and asked zoners to relax the prevailing density limits for multi-family housing.
The panel refused, limiting Fernandes to subdividing the property into just eight units and prompting him to appeal to the Superior Court. Fernandes asked the panel to reconsider in 2012, but the panel reaffirmed its earlier decision.
In other action Monday, zoners approved a proposal by developer Raymond Bourque to build an adult day care center at the old Jenckes Mill, 781 Social St. The 12,000-square-foot adult site will be operated under a lease to the PACE (Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly) Organization of Rhode Island. PACE has a similar operation in Providence.
A historic portion of the mill dating back to 1828 was razed last summer after its roof partially collapsed. Lawyer Lloyd Gariepy said some additional demolition work to an adjoining structure was required to make the site suitable for redevelopment to a mixed use.
Bourque plans to create a new façade for the remaining commercial property at the site and also to complete renovations making the old manufacturing space suitable for the planned elder care facility.
The services PACE offers its elderly clients are designed to help keep a fragile elder in a home environment rather than in the nursing home care they might otherwise require, according to Gariepy.
At one point, it appeared the proposal might be tabled for more research, but the panel voted after a plea from State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Dist. 49) not to leave another businessman in limbo, an apparent reference to Fernandes’ problems with St. Francis House.

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