NORTH SMITHFIELD – After emotional testimony from residents that included pleas to zoners to put residents’ health and welfare ahead of one business’s desire to expand, the decision Tuesday night on Material Sampling Technology’s proposal to erect a 23,700-square-foot building on Central Street came down to something much smaller: a comma.
The North Smithfield Zoning Board unanimously voted to ask the business, a precious metal reclamation company that’s operated in town since 2011, to return with a plan that puts a loading dock on the proposed structure at the back of the building, as required by the town’s zoning ordinance.
It was a request not predicted by an attorney speaking on behalf of the applicant, who contended throughout the meeting that the particular zoning provision did not apply to the project.
“I do not read that section to say that,” said Attorney Joelle Rocha, a partner with Providence-based firm Duffy & Sweeney Ltd.
At the meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 25, engineer Joe Casali presented the plan, with some revisions since it first came before zoners in August. The business purchased a vacant 10-acre lot adjacent to its current operations at 800 Central St. last year, and is looking to expand, with a new building Casali said would be used for sorting materials. In addition to the single-story structure, the property would feature parking for the business, along with loading docks designed to accommodate large trucks bringing in the materials for processing.
MST processes precious metal bearing waste, including electronics and jewelry, as well as materials from the automotive, aerospace and telecommunication industries, which the business then ships out for further reclamation.
The majority of the company’s new Central Street property is occupied by wetlands, leaving only the section closest to the roadway for the potential expansion.
“That’s all wetlands,” said Casali. “That will never be built upon.”
While the lot is situated in an MU2 zone, most of the neighborhood features residential homes, and the proposal, as presented this week, would require dimensional variances from setback requirements for the front, side and rear of the new structure. .
“It’s an allowed use,” Rocha said in defense of the request.
Residents opposed to the project have pointed to concerns for their wells, and have questioned the wisdom of allowing a business with past violations with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to expand onto a lot covered in wetlands. Earlier this month, NRI NOW published a story noting MST’s past issues with compliance, including fees paid to RIDEM for violations.
Rocha contended this week that MST’s previous violations were not relevant to the decision before zoners.
“The only property before you is a vacant lot,” she said.
Zoning Board member Gail Berlinghof has recused herself from the application and requested an opinion from the state Ethics Commission to speak on the project.
“They don’t even discuss the aquifer that’s underneath there. It’s huge,” Berlinghof said in a plea to her peers to protect water in the area.
“This warehouse is huge,” Berlinghof added. “It doesn’t belong there.”
The zoner was among many in opposition to the proposal to speak against the variance requests.
“These buildings will house hazardous materials,” said resident Lian Jalette. “What will that do to our wells? MST does not have a good track record.”
Jalette said that there have been at least three documented fires in the business’s current building, and noted that an addition was previously put on without permits. She also noted links between the company and Zoning Board Chairperson Robert Najarian, whose business has done work for MST and who has also recused himself from ruling on the request.
“I would like to know why this board would grant permission to a company that has not followed the rules the first time,” Jalette said.
Resident Charles Rapoza noted that Central Street provides access to the nearby Blackstone Valley bike path, and that families regularly walk along the roadway.
“The street is not properly constructed for any additional trucks,” Rapoza said. “They can’t make that turn. It’s too tight.”
Town Council President John Beauregard also weighed in on the proposal.
“I think they’re asking for unusual relief here because of the land,” Beauregard said. “These trucks will have to be backed in daily. It shouldn’t interfere with the quality of life of the surrounding neighborhood.”
“I’m pro business. We need business in town. They create jobs,” Beauregard said. However, he added, “I think they’re asking for too much. It doesn’t fit into construction of the site.”
Resident Christian de Rezendes noted that MST’s RIDEM violations do not appear in town records.
“We know that MST recycles and refines hazardous metals and we know that they have a history with DEM,” de Rezendes said. “Not only should MST not be allowed to build this building in this location, in my opinion, they should be gone.”
“MST’s right to expand must end where the health and safety of residents can be compromised,” de Rezendes added. “That is the line. We will wait to hear what side of that line you’re on.”
Acting Zoning Board Chairperson Scott Martin said that the requests do not meet the standard of seeking the minimum possible relief.
“You are asking for a massive amount of relief,” Martin said, noting that the building could instead be reconfigured to meet setback requirements. “That would be the least relief to me.”
“They’re trying to put a big building in a very small spot,” Martin added.
But it was the zoning ordinance regarding storage and loading areas that ultimately prevailed in Tuesday’s decision. The provision governs outside storage, noting that, “materials, supplies, or equipment, including trucks or other motor vehicles, shall be permitted,” only under certain conditions, including that the loading dock is located in the rear of the building.
Rocha argued that trucks were not considered storage under the ordinance, a contention disputed by town Attorney Stephen Archambault.
“I don’t see it as ambiguous,” Archambault said. “We can agree to disagree. There’s a comma.”
Zoners voted unanimously to ask the company to come back before the board with a proposal accounting for the ordinance, although it was unclear this week how the business will respond.
“You can continue it, and we can let you know,” Rocha said.
The board voted to continue the meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 22.