NORTH SMITHFIELD – The owner of an undeveloped Victory Highway property has an ongoing legal challenge against a decision by the North Smithfield Town Council to place restrictions on potential commercial uses of his land.

And a plan by the same property owner to extend a quiet residential street to access the lot has seen no progress.

John Russo, owner of Home Towne Auto Body and Sales and Maxx Tanning, first asked the board for zone changes to the lot, situated beside his current businesses on the busy highway, in November of 2018.

The proposal was met with vocal opposition from neighbors in the abutting residential neighborhood from Georgiana and Carlton Avenues.

Council members initially stalled on the request to have the 4.5 acre lot changed to business highway, but approved a second request to subdivide the property.  Russo, who purchased the wooded lot from H Enterprises Inc. for $110,000 in 2012, said he hoped to build a home for his son on the portion abutting the neighborhood, accessed by Carlton.

The change would require an extension of the road, with the project to be financed by the business owner, and oversight provided by the Department of Public Works.

Two years later, Public Works Director Raymond Pendergast notes that no plans for a road extension have been submitted.

In March of 2019, councilors again debated the other piece of Russo’s plan – to change zoning of the second half of the lot to business highway – and ultimately approved the request, with stipulations. According to the modified approval, Russo would need to comply with the use restrictions of a business neighborhood zone, despite the business highway designation. No vehicles or construction equipment could be stored on the property overnight, and the owner would have to fund well testing on neighboring properties every three years. 

A privacy buffer would have to be planted blocking neighbors. And an abutting Victory Highway parcel, also owned by Russo, would have to remain residential, and not revert to business highway zoning at a later date.

At the time, the owner’s attorney, Timothy Dodd, was quoted in the news as stating of the decision, “We can live with the restrictions they’ve placed on future development.”

A large sign was erected on the vacant property advertising, “Land for Lease, Zoned Business Highway.”

But the following month, Dodd filed a complaint in Superior Court stating that the approval included, “certain punitive, unwarranted and/or illegal conditions to which the plaintiff is aggrieved.”

The council, “did not provide plaintiff with sufficient time to consider the conditions which were suggested at the last minute,” and Russo was “under duress,” according to Dodd.

The attorney asks for a reversal of the decision, which he says exceeded the council’s authority, “was arbitrary and/or capricious.”

A response from the town submitted by Solicitor David Igliozzi states that the court lacks jurisdiction on the issue, and that the plaintiff has no right to a zone change.

The case was among several Igliozzi discussed with councilors this week in an executive session meeting focused on bringing newly elected officials up to speed with the town’s legal issues.

The suit currently remains unassigned in Providence County Superior Court.

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