WOONSOCKET — Voting 5-2, the City Council Monday granted second and final passage to a controversial amendment to the Zoning Ordinance that would provide the panel with veto power over decisions of the Zoning Board of Review involving state, federal and municipal projects.
The measure, framed as a way to lend more transparency to decisions like those resulting in the ongoing relocation of RISE Prep Mayoral Academy, has already caused such a stir that it prompted Planning Director Joel Mathews to resign after it was introduced in January. The council unsuccessfully sued in Superior Court in attempts to block RISE Prep from relocating to 30 Cumberland St., but it’s now mounting an appeal to the Supreme Court as RISE Prep plans a ribboncutting for the new location on April 12.
Students have already begun moving into RISE Prep ahead of the ribbon-cutting, board members say.
“This ordinance right here will alleviate the city from hopefully ever having such a huge mistake made again,” Council President Dan Gendron said, citing lost revenues to the city for hosting RISE Prep and the risk of allowing small children to attend school in a commercial zone.
Associated with the Planning Department since the 1970s, including many years as its director, Mathews, who contended the ordinance was punitive and illegal, exited after a dispute with Councilman James Cournoyer over the measure. Cournoyer challenged Mathews to show proof that the ordinance is unlawful and threatened to eliminate the budget for the director’s salary, at which point Mathews announced his resignation.
During Monday’s meeting, Councilman John Ward and City Solicitor John DeSimone both said they consulted with the state Office of Statewide Planning in attempts to see whether Mathews’ claims could be validated. Similar objections were raised by the Planning Board, which obtained an outside legal opinion from the firm Partridge Snow and Hahn to buttress its position.
“Essentially what it boiled down to is...statewide planning said there is nobody here that could have granted an opinion on our ordinances being illegal,” said Ward, “because they have no authority over our ordinances, despite what Mr. Mathews claimed, despite what the Planning Board asserted in their letter.”
DeSimone, who had previously opined that the ordinance is lawful and that the council may justly adopt it, said he was on the phone with two officials at statewide planning for about 20 minutes in attempts to discover some authority to undercut his opinion.
“My opinion that I gave to the council was not contradicted by statewide planning,” said DeSimone.
Like Council President Gendron, Cournoyer said the purpose of the ordinance is to make sure future proposals are in the best interests of the city – not to inflict retribution on RISE Prep.
“This has nothing to do with retribution,” he said. “This has nothing to do with them at this point. That horse has left the barn.”
Cournoyer, Gendron, Ward, Councilwoman Denise Sierra and Vice President Jon Brien all voted to approve the amendment, while Councilwoman Julia Brown and Councilman David Soucy voted against it.
It was Soucy who advanced the most urgent critique of the proposal. He expressed concerns that it would add another layer of red tape to the regulatory process, potentially stifling investment in the city. He also said he feared that the measure could result in litigation.
“We spend way too much on litigation already as far as I’m concerned,” Soucy said. “This is bad legislation for the city of Woonsocket.”
Despite the council’s efforts to appeal Superior Court Judge Sara Taft Carter’s decision on RISE Prep, the school, currently located at 1 Social St., has already begun transferring its 220-member student body to 30 Cumberland St. in advance of next week’s ribbon cutting, according to RISE Prep Board Member Carolyn Dias, assistant dean for Roger Williams University College in Providence.
“They started moving them over on Monday and they’ll be phased in,” said Dias. “They should all be moved in by the time we have the ribboncutting.”
Dias is not worried about the possibility of the Supreme Court taking up the council’s appeal on RISE Prep.
“As far as I’m concerned, I think the last decision was pretty clear and public schools have wide latitude on where they can put these buildings and that was confirmed in the last opinion,” she said. “We’re moving forward and we’re excited for the school. We’re confident it’s going to be a big success, now that we have this beautiful new building.”
In the most recent of several lawsuits against RISE Prep since the school was founded, the council mounted a zoning-based action in Superior Court last year. The principal argument was that RISE Prep, unlike a public school, is not a municipal use and that the plain language of the zoning ordinance prevents such nonprofit organizations from operating schools for small children in the commercial zone where 30 Cumberland St. is situated.
In a ruling on Jan. 17, Taft-Carter disagreed. Citing state law, the zoning ordinance, the city’s comprehensive plan and the testimony of city officials, she said “the term municipal use should be interpreted to include public charter schools” such as RISE Prep.
Despite the new measure’s focus on the zoning ordinance, it was not the Zoning Board of Review that made the decision to deem RISE Prep a municipal use, thus exempt from the prohibitions on some nonprofit schools in commercial zones. Zoning Officer Carl Johnson made that decision, for which the judge praised him in her ruling.
But Cournoyer made it plain during Monday’s council meeting that he believes Johnson and the judge are both wrong.
“What we have, unfortunately, are individuals in the city, in my opinion, who very willingly, and blatantly, ignore the planing language of our charter and our ordinances,” he said.
The council has hired North Scituate lawyer Nicholas Gorham to handle the appeal, but it’s still unclear whether the high court will consider it. Before the case is docketed for consideration of a possible appeal, Gorham must provide the Supreme Court with a transcript from all the proceedings in the lower court, a process still under way.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo