Zoning Board ‘inclined to deny’ Dunkin, but punts on decision
Instead, Bristol board members direct town staff to write the decision for them, ‘consistent with the discussion’
After 17 hours of testimony over several months on a single coffee shop proposal, Bristol Zoning Board members finally came to a decision Thursday night.
And then they chose not to make it.
The controversial plan to build a free-standing Dunkin’ Donuts with a drive-thru in front of the existing shop in Gooding Plaza has been before the Zoning Board since last September. Board members have heard hours of testimony from Dunkin’ owner Christopher Prezeres and his team of lawyers, planners and traffic engineers. They’ve also heard from a parade of residents and public officials — the police chief, fire chief and town administrator among them — who decry the proposal for its potential to exacerbate an already difficult traffic situation near Hope Street and Gooding Avenue, and endanger lives by slowing the response time of fire trucks from the Defiance Hose Company directly next to the proposed store.
When it came time late Thursday night for board members to decide whether to grant a special use permit for the drive-thru, three of five said they were “inclined to deny” the proposal. Then they punted, opting instead to direct town staff members to write their decision for them, “consistent with the discussion tonight,” acting Chairman Bruce Kogan said.
That decision, which will be formally presented on July 10, should be a denial of the proposal after Mr. Kogan, Tony Brum and Derek Tipton expressed their opposition.
“The real question is whether the general standard is satisfied — whether it will or won’t alter the character of the surrounding area. The seems to me to be the real crux of the case,” said Mr. Kogan, after acknowledging the proposal meets most required zoning standards. “The applicant did not take into account the surrounding residential neighborhood. Any increase in traffic will have a negative altering affect on the neighborhood. I don’t see this as meeting the standard of not altering the character of the surrounding area.”
Board members Donald Kern and Charlie Burke said they are in favor of the proposal, agreeing with Mr. Prezeres’ team that the plan meets the zoning requirements of a general business zone where a drive-thru restaurant is allowed by the town’s comprehensive plan.
“If we deny, we’re essentially making the land unbuildable,” Mr. Kern said. “Any time there is an increase in business, there is likely to be an increase in traffic.”
Mr. Prezeres and his team, however, indicated the new drive-thru would not significantly increase traffic, rather, it would take from existing traffic. “We are merely going to be providing a convenience for the existing traffic that’s already there,” Mr. Prezeres said. “More people will be coming into the drive-thru because it’s convenient and it’s fast.”
Traffic engineer Joseph Giordano recapped his testimony from a meeting earlier this year, based on a study he conducted on a Thursday morning in December 2015. He counted the trips in and out of Gooding Plaza, as well as the number of cars that pass through the intersection between 7:45 and 8:45 a.m., deemed to be peak time for a Dunkin' drive-thru.
Mr. Giordano estimated there were 109 car trips (55 in, 54 out) at Gooding Plaza. Based on sales data from a similar Dunkin’ Donuts in Warren, the study anticipates the drive-thru would add 78 new trips, for a total of 187 trips (94 in, 93 out). Despite the increased trips, the Gordon Archibald engineer determined the impact on traffic would be minimal.
Among the chief concerns of the opponents is the inability to turn onto Hope Street from Fales Road, directly across the street from the proposed restaurant. Residents tell of waits as long as 5-10 minutes just to turn out of their neighborhood. Mr. Giordano disputed their contention. He said he recorded an average wait time to turn out of Fales Road of just 10.5 seconds.
The state Department of Transportation, which conducted a new traffic study at the Town Council’s request, came up with a much higher number, recording average wait times of between 80 and 120 seconds.
“Those numbers are much more consistent with the testimony of the Fales Road residents,” Mr. Kogan said.
Those residents resumed their opposition to the plan Thursday, adding to those who railed against the proposal late into the night at a meeting in April. Traffic congestion and the inability of volunteer firefighters to quickly get into and out of the Defiance station during heavy traffic times were the chief concerns.
“How on Earth is it possible to neglect public safety and the fire station function?,” said Fales Road resident Vassil Zlatarski. “How is it possible to forget the negative impact on the neighborhood? The applicants are insisting the project will fit in the area. Wrong.”
“It takes a Kamikaze driver to get out of Fales Road when the traffic is heavy,” added Valley Drive resident Patricia Healey. “As many as eight cars line up waiting to hit their accelerator hard to get out. It’s not a very easy drive. And for you gentlemen who are going to make the decision, I hope you will take 20 minutes to examine that neighborhood again, and see what you’re asking of them.”
James Morris, a lieutenant with the Defiance Hose Company, gave each board member a map of Bristol, with the Defiance coverage area highlighted in pink, showing that the station is responsible for more than half the town. Traffic on Hope Street slows response times as inconsiderate drivers often refuse to yield, allowing fires to spread and endangering lives, he said.
“Lights and sirens aren’t magic, and they can’t change the laws of physics,” Lt. Morris said. “The engine still has to deal with traffic and drivers who don’t think. Lights and sirens don’t help as much as you might think.”
Mr. Prezeres said he is willing to donate six parking spaces in the Dunkin’ lot to replace the spots volunteer firefighters use that the new store would swallow up. That would help them get to the station quicker once they access Gooding Plaza, he said. He also reiterated the donations Prezeres Management Group has made to the community, including building a scoreboard at Guiteras Field, paying for a PA system at Mt. Hope High School, and donating products to the RI Veterans Home and care packages for local soldiers overseas.
“We don’t like to advertise what we do, but I think it’s important to understand that we have done quite a bit for the community,” said Mr. Prezeres, noting he and his brother both attended Roger Williams University. “We are small business owners, not a big corporation. We take great pride in the town of Bristol. We have a deep passion for Bristol.”
Other resident comments include:
Martin Needleman, Fales Road:
"My concern is about insurance, accidents. This place is loaded with the potential for accidents now. With this horrendous misuse of public space, we will have more accidents. Will the town be sued? Will taxes go up because you were negligent in your decision making? I think it is incumbent upon the board to investigate this issue. You will find it very difficult to withdraw that application in the future."
Patricia Healey, Valley Drive:
"Is access to the proposed building adequate? If entering and leaving Hope Street through the curb cut is feasible, why are there two signs reading, “This is not an exit,” facing the parking lot where the proposed Dunkin’ would be located. Someone made this decision to put these signs up. Council? Police? Town engineers? The signs proved to be a very smart move. Why? Sending cars headed south out of the parking lot across two or three lines of traffic is not a good idea."
Patrick Barosh, Aaron Avenue:
"This does not enhance Bristol. There shouldn’t be a curb cut there. The present plans here would be sort of horrendous. I would urge anyone to have it sent back to the drawing board."
Sandra Maxwell, Aaron Avenue:
"The cost of your home insurance is largely based on the response times of the fire department. This would have an effect on all of us in this area."
Sylvia Reinholt, Clifton Road:
"Bristol is one of the most scenic towns in the northeast for visitors. My fear is that with these big Dunkin' Donuts signs and entrances causing so much trouble, Hope Street is going to take on the flavor of Metacom Avenue. I didn’t want to live on Metacom Avenue. I want to live in a scenic neighborhood."
Carol Needleman, Fales Road:
"We are not talking about inconvenience of people in the Fales Road area. This has a much broader impact. Anyone trying to cross Hope Street at that location as a pedestrian also takes a Kamikaze run. The existing crosswalk there is really a death trap. Drivers are well into the turn, gunning their engines before they even see the pedestrian crossing signs.
"Given all the public safety issues that have been raised, you as Zoning Board members, as individuals, how are you going to feel when there is a fatality or when there is a fire that could be stopped. Search your conscience. You can stop this now. If there is a tragedy, what are you going to think? And what will the rest of us think?"