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Wawaloam Reservation, Inc. v. Richmond Zoning Board of Review

Superior Court of Rhode Island

August 26, 2014


Washington County Superior Court

For Plaintiff George A. Comolli, Esq.

For Defendant Michael L. Cozzolino, Esq.



Wawaloam Reservation, Inc. (Wawaloam or Appellant) appeals from a decision of the Richmond Zoning Board of Review (Zoning Board) conditioning the approval of a special use permit for the construction of 130 additional campsites upon maintaining a 100-foot buffer, or setback, along Appellant's northern property line.

Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 45-24-69. For the reasons set forth herein, the Zoning Board's decision is affirmed.


Facts and Travel

Wawaloam owns a 100-acre parcel of property in Richmond, Rhode Island upon which it operates a seasonal campground containing 300 recreational vehicle campsites (the Campground). Wawaloam has been operating the Campground since the late 1960s. In 1990, the property became a nonconforming use when the Town of Richmond (Richmond) rezoned the area in which the Campground is situated to residential use, designated as R-2. Presently, the Richmond Zoning Ordinance (the Zoning Ordinance) permits campgrounds in an R-2 zone by special use permit. See Zoning Ordinance (Zoning Ord.) § 18.16.010. The Zoning Ordinance permits expansion of a nonconforming use also by way of a special use permit. See Zoning Ord. § 18.48.040.

On June 3, 2005, Wawaloam applied for several special use permits to make various improvements to the Campground, [1] including the addition of 130 new campsites.[2] On June 27, 2005, the Zoning Board referred the application to the Richmond Planning Board (the Planning Board) for advisory development plan review and recommendation. After numerous meetings, a site visit and revisions to Wawaloam's application, the Planning Board issued a written memorandum to the Zoning Board dated June 25, 2008. See R., at Ex. 20. The Planning Board recommended the special use permits be approved provided Wawaloam met a number of conditions, one of which recommended that Wawaloam be required to maintain a fifty-foot vegetated buffer between its new campsites and the Campground's northern property line for a distance of 300 feet, and within that fifty-foot buffer would be included plantings, a berm and a stockade fence. Id. at 3-4. The purpose of the fifty-foot vegetated buffer in this area was to reestablish privacy for the abutting landowners which had been all but lost when trees and bushes on the northern part of the Campground had been removed.

The Zoning Board conducted public hearings on Wawaloam's special permit application on March 23, April 27, and May 20, 2009. During these three hearings, the Zoning Board received testimony from numerous witnesses both for and against the proposed alterations to the Campground.

Charles Vernon (Vernon), the President of Vernon Project Management and Wawaloam's planning expert, testified regarding the planning report he prepared for Wawaloam. See R., at Ex. 35. Vernon opined that the proposed alterations would be consistent with various objectives of Richmond's Comprehensive Plan by providing recreation for residents, conserving open space, and fostering economic development. Tr. 61:12-24; 63:12-64:1-8, Mar. 23, 2009. Vernon also discussed the fifty-foot vegetated and bermed buffer, noting,

"[the Campground] is an existing use, and as such, to provide for a [fifty]-foot vegetated bermed buffer on the northern side is, from a design point of view and a planning point of view, absolutely consistent with your Zoning Ordinance in an effort to mitigate against light, noise, and other elements of the development that may be distasteful to abutters." Tr. 68:14-22, Mar. 23, 2009.

Although Vernon maintained that the fifty-foot buffer would be sufficient to shield neighboring landowners, he also pointed out that the Zoning Board's determination in that regard is discretionary, stating "you can make that buffer as wide as you want and high as you want and vegetate it any way you want [.]" Tr. 68:8-69:1-2, Mar. 23, 2009.

Halle Beckman (Beckman), a landscape architect who developed Appellant's landscape plan and the vegetated and bermed buffer zone, also testified. Beckman described the buffer zone's design as a fifty-foot wide buffer with a six-foot high cedar stockade fence and an earthen berm about five-feet high and about forty-feet wide. Tr. 79:6-17, Mar. 23, 2009. Coverage for the benefit of neighboring landowners would be provided by evergreen trees and bushes planted on and near the berm, which would begin at the northwest corner of the Campground and extend east for 300 feet. Tr. 79:6-24, Mar. 23, 2009. Like Vernon, Beckman opined that the five-foot berm and six-foot trees planted thereon would "certainly block[] any . . . kind of disturbance going back and forth whatsoever." Tr. 83:15-17, Mar. 23, 2009. In response to one Zoning Board member's concern over the adequacy of the buffer, noting that "on any given summer afternoon there are probably . . . six campers running their engines and air conditioners, " Beckman stated, "I think, hopefully, we have pretty much taken care of that with the plantings that we have." Tr. 84:19-85:1-2, Mar. 23, 2009.

Several nearby residents also testified in favor of Appellant's special use permit application, including two residents of Hillsdale Mobile Home Park (Hillsdale Park), which is located on property partly adjacent to the Campground. Hillsdale Park resident Bob Vierra serves as the president of Hillsdale Park and stated that he routinely receives complaints from the 105 residents in Hillsdale Park, but that he has not received, nor did he himself offer, complaints about the Campground. Tr. 139:14-23, Apr. 27, 2009. Kathleen Tucker, also a resident of Hillsdale Park whose home is a block away from the Campground, testified that they "hear noise but it's not out of control for us." Tr. 140:3-13, Apr. 27, 2009.

Three residents of Bridgeview Drive, located to the north of the Campground, also offered testimony in favor of Wawaloam's proposed alterations. Christy Dultra testified that she believed that noise was not "a big concern." Tr. 142:8-21, Apr. 27, 2009. Francis Glawson, III and Timothy M. and Susan E. Griffin offered written statements in favor of Appellant's application, largely based on the portion of the plan which alleviates traffic congestion. See R., at Exs. 40-41. Those written statements did not address noise or privacy issues. Id.

Not all area residents offered comments favorable to Appellant, with those in closer proximity to the Campground expressing concerns over privacy and noise.[3] Diane and David Haley, of 5 Bell Schoolhouse Road, live on Lot 2-5, adjacent to the Campground's northern boundary. The lot is approximately 1, 600-feet deep and abuts the Campground for its entire depth. Tr. 147:1-4, Apr. 27, 2009. Of the seventy-three additional campsites that are proposed for the northwest corner of the Campground, twenty-two sites would be within fifty feet of the Haley property line. Tr. 147:11-14, Apr. 27, 2009. Diane Haley testified that, even without the proposed additional campsites, she and her husband already experience a lack of privacy. She testified that in 1995, when the Haleys bought their property, there was a thick vegetative buffer on the Campground's northern boundary that effectively shielded their property from light and noise. Starting in 1996, however, Wawaloam began clearing trees along the property line, thereby diminishing any buffer.[4] The Haleys testified that they "find it very difficult and uncomfortable to spend time in [their] backyard." Tr. 148:6-22, Apr. 27, 2009. From their enclosed three-season room, the Haleys have a front-row view of a constant stream of campers and cars driving in and out of the Campground along a road that is approximately ninety feet from their property line. Tr. 148:24-149:1-5, Apr. 27, 2009. Additionally, when they are out in their yard or by their pool, the Haleys can hear the announcements from the Campground's loudspeaker. Tr. 149:6-20, Apr. 27, 2009. David Haley further testified that he had to install a privacy fence along a portion of his property to have some privacy at his pool because campers "don't realize that people live there. They come up and say whoa." Tr. 157:21-22, Apr. 27, 2009.

Carla Marcus (Marcus) is a neighbor of the Haleys who lives at 11 Bell Schoolhouse Road. Like the Haleys, Marcus currently experiences problems with the Campground. She testified that the noise from the batting cages has interfered with her ability to eat her meals quietly and entertain in her backyard. Tr. 174:17-24, Apr. 27, 2009. Concerned that the proposed expansion will only exacerbate the current problems, Marcus told the Zoning Board, "[f]rom my property, you can see straight through [the Haleys'] land into the [C]ampground . . . . If they don't increase that buffer we are going to be looking at campers and they are going to be looking at us[.]" Tr. 173:15-24, Apr. 27, 2009.

Marion Myre, of 1 Bell Schoolhouse Road, also testified, "[w]hen I moved there, it was a smaller campground . . . . Through the years, it's changed to where we are feeling that we have no privacy." Tr. 176:19-177:1-2, Apr. 27, 2009.

Other nearby property owners expressed concerns similar to those of the Bell Schoolhouse Road contingent. Raymond Rumowicz lives on Hillsdale Road, on the western boundary of the Campground, and testified that, "[a]s of right now I have maybe twelve neighbors within 500 feet of me. If this goes through, I will have 112 neighbors, new neighbors in there." Tr. 169:11-15, Apr. 27, 2009. He added that, "[t]he real issue for me is going to be the noise that would be there. I can't imagine an additional 70 people in the summertime could not add to more noise that's there." Tr. 179:3-7, Apr. 27, 2009.

Nearby property owners were not the only concerned individuals. Town Council member Karen Ellsworth, representing the Richmond Town Council, testified that the Town Council was also interested in ensuring that there be sufficient buffering along the Campground's perimeter. Tr. 179:11-14, Apr. 27, 2009.

On June 17, 2009, the Zoning Board held a workshop at which the northern buffer zone was a frequently-discussed topic. Zoning Board member Robert Ornstein (Ornstein) raised concerns about the density of the proposed sites along the northern boundary of the Campground, pointing out that it would be 100% more dense than anywhere else in the Campground and could create a noise issue for abutting neighbors. Tr. 287:10-19, June 17, 2009. Ornstein proposed to expand the width of buffer along the northern boundary of the Campground from fifty feet to one-hundred feet. Tr. 288:11-289:1-3, June 17, 2009. Zoning Board member Vincent Rinaldi, Jr. (Rinaldi) noted that campsites along the northern border could still look into the Haleys' backyard and suggested there be an expanded buffer to provide more privacy. Tr. 318:1-10, June 17, 2009.

Members of the Zoning Board also discussed the length of the berm and whether it should be increased to cover the length of the northern property line. The ...

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