The Worcester County Commissioners on Tuesday approved a change in zoning from residential to commercial for one of two properties along Route 50, between Herring Creek and the Route 50 bridge.
The property, located on the northeast side of the Herring Creek bridge, is currently zoned R-2 Suburban Residential District, and the owners, Dawn and Jeff Pruitt were given the green light to have the 4.5-acre parcel zoned C-2 General Commercial District.
The Pruitts have claimed previously that there was a mistake made when the zoning was designated R-2 in the county’s most recent comprehensive rezoning, done in November 2019. When zoning was established in the 1960s, the area was given an R-2 classification, which it retained in 1978, 1992, and 2009.
The commissioners were tasked with only approving the rezoning of the parcel, but the waters were muddied when one resident provided each of the seven board members with concept plans that nearly every resident in attendance was holding in front of them.
Those concept plans show a nearly 9,000-square-foot, three to four-story building, and 99 parking spaces. The building appears to be located inside the critical area, or 100 feet from the water.
One of the concerns expressed by residents was the drainage from the heavily paved property running into Herring Creek, which is already impaired.
One resident, John O’Dell, told the commissioners the property comes within 50 feet of the water, and the nearly 12,000 square foot paved section with little buffer zone was only going to facilitate more runoff into the creek.
“If you have that much runoff into the creek, it’s going to have a bad effect on the creek,” he said.
Charles Shorely, another resident who spoke during the public hearing, told the commissioners he was concerned that changing the zoning to commercial would open the doorway to other uses like a waterfront restaurant, which could affect the quality of life he and his neighbors enjoy.
“This is not what it’s about. It’s not about commerce all the time,” resident Patrice Lehmann Burbage said. “If it was supposed to be, this would have been changed several years ago.
“You knew what you got when you bought it, OK … you got residential.”
Hugh Cropper IV, the attorney representing the Pruitts, provided the commissioners with the lay of the land as it stands today as compared to what was provided by the residents earlier during the hearing.
When asked during the public hearing whether he had seen the plans making the rounds among the residents, Cropper acted as if he had not and said the concept would require a substantial amount of variance to gain approval. But toward the end of the hearing, Cropper said he provided the draft plan to an inquiring resident and apologized..
During his rebuttal of statements made by residents during the hearing, Cropper said nobody mentioned anything about the comprehensive plan and what designates the area as a commercial corridor, as it is zoned today.
He also said the property is more developable now if it were to be split in half – a commercial zoning would be less developable.
To prevent runoff, Cropper added, the property will be sewered, have a 100-foot buffer, and be subject to strict scrutiny.
Commissioner Josh Nordstrom was the first to move and accept the findings provided by the planning commission, which endorsed the project. His motion was seconded by Commissioner Ted Elder.
Commissioner Chip Bertino, though, said he could not “unring the bell” having seen the concept plans that made the rounds. He added that he could not support the change of zoning because the plans showed a significant amount of disruption to the property.
Elder, though he supported Nordstrom’s motion, said the project could be before the commissioners again and told the property owners and Cropper there needs to be a plan put together that suits everybody – the residents and property owners.
“You can’t unsee what you’ve seen, but I can’t unsee this,” Commissioner Diana Purnell said.
Still, she added, she was going to trust her gut and vote in favor of the zoning change, warning the planners they better have something better when they return.
When the final vote was made, the commissioners approved the zoning change 6-1, with Bertino as the sole opponent.