Heidi Drive controversy revived during Portsmouth board appointment

Despite words of support, Ann Fiore denied zoning board post

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PORTSMOUTH — Town officials had hoped to put the Heidi Drive case behind them when they agreed to pay a $800,000 settlement to Rhode Island Nurseries last year.

But the controversy was revived in ugly fashion at Monday’s Town Council meeting during discussion on what is normally an innocuous agenda item: appointing a second alternate to the Zoning Board of Review.

After the dust settled, the council declined to appoint Ann Fiore, the only candidate who received any words of support from local residents. Ms. Fiore, of 290 Frank Coelho Drive, raises alpacas as co-owner of Glen Ridge Farm, which became involved in a dispute over a paper road abandonment in 2011 that ultimately led to last year’s settlement.

The other two candidates were Benjamin Furriel, of 23 Gideon Lawton Lane, who was appointed as alternate in a 5-2 vote; and Thomas Blouin, of 108 Dighton Ave.

The words “Heidi Drive” were never actually uttered at Monday night’s meeting, but the controversy nonetheless dominated the proceedings.

Background

In 2010 the Planning Board granted Rhode Island Nurseries master plan approval for a 14-lot residential subdivision on its farmland to the north of Glen Ridge Farm. At that time, Glen Ridge was part of an existing residential subdivision which included the Heidi Drive Extension. 

The Planning Board required the paper road be built as a gravel gated road for emergency access to the new subdivision. The owners of Glen Ridge Farm objected and petitioned the Town Council to abandon the paper road under the state’s road abandonment statute, and after a 2011 hearing the council agreed. The council also awarded zero damages to the nursery and the public road became the private property of Glen Ridge Farm.

Rhode Island Nurseries, which said their rights to due process were violated and that the abandonment forced them to spend substantial additional costs, filed suit in Newport Superior Court. The town settled with the nursery for $800,000 in October 2016.

Without mentioning the case, council member David M. Gleason first made a motion to appoint Ms. Fiore, saying she’s learned a lot about zoning and land use issues through her “trials and tribulations” with the town. 

“Here’s a person who really wants to give back to the town and I think she deserves the chance,” he said.

Council member Elizabeth A. Pedro, who also supported Ms. Fiore, implied that two recent board applications were “held back” from the council.  

“I don’t like what’s happening every time Ms. Fiore has put in an application. There’s always a snafu,” said Ms. Pedro.

Council President Keith E. Hamilton, however, disputed her claim that anything untoward had taken place.

“There are no shenanigans going on,” said Mr. Hamilton, adding that the aforementioned applicants submitted papers before there was official notification that a zoning board member was resigning. 

Mr. Hamilton said he had concerns “over Ms. Fiore’s background” and that it appeared she was unwilling to compromise during the Heidi Drive case.

“It cost the town $800,000,” Mr. Hamilton said.

Mr. Gleason said he disagreed with that assessment, adding that Ms. Fiore’s “sins of the past, if you want to call it that,” shouldn’t disqualify her from serving on the zoning board.

Fiore responds

An angry Ms. Fiore responded in kind to the council president’s remarks.

“I take tremendous offense that you are holding a situation that occurred years ago over my head,” she told Mr. Hamilton. “I take terrible offense that you are saying I’m not a compromising person because of that incident.”

Ms. Fiore also accused Mr. Hamilton of going “behind my back” while trying to negotiate an agreement during the stalemate, a charge that he denied.

“I did not negotiate a deal,” said Mr. Hamilton.

Three residents spoke in support of Ms. Fiore and a fourth — Gloria Schmidt — submitted a letter on her behalf. 

Mil Kinsella, of Narragansett Boulevard, told the council that Ms. Fiore knows state and local laws better than most attorneys and that she loves Portsmouth. 

“I will sleep better at night knowing that all people’s interests will be protected,” Ms. Kinsella said.

Time to vote

Mr. Gleason’s motion to appoint Ms. Fiore was voted down, 3-4. Ms. Pedro, Mr. Gleason and council member Paul F. Kesson voted to appoint Ms. Fiore, while Mr. Hamilton and council members Kevin M. Aguiar, J. Mark Ryan and Linda L. Ujufusa voted against.

“What a surprise,” Ms. Pedro quipped.

Mr. Kesson then made a motion to appoint Mr. Furriel, with whom he worked at Raytheon for 10 years. (Mr. Furriel, an engineer, has 32 years of experience in the defense industry.)

“This is a hard choice for me,” said Mr. Kesson.

The council voted 5-2 to appoint Mr. Furriel, with Ms. Pedro and Mr. Gleason in the minority.

Additional appointments

The council made the following additional appointments Monday, all by unanimous vote:

• Mr. Furriel to the Economic Development Committee

• Leslie S. Costa, of 39 Lilac Lane, to the Design Review Board

• W. James Wesner, of 2020 East Main Road, to the Melville Park Committee

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