PVD Zoning Board of Review rejects variance application of polluting asphalt company in the Port

“…there is no power-wash or solvent to remove that from our lungs,” said Dr Andrew Saal rom the Providence Community Health Center.
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Published on October 14, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

The Providence Zoning Board of Review on Wednesday voted 5-0 to deny an application for a variance to Narragansett Improvement Co and Cumberland Farms Incorporated to use the property at 338 Allens Ave, (Plat 47, Lot 368) for non-waterfront dependent Materials Processing and storage of concrete, stone, aggregate and asphalt.

During deliberations, that took over two hours, the Zoning Board of Review, a quasi-judicial body, heard testimony in person and over Zoom from well over a dozen people who were against the application, including including State Senators Tiara Mack and Samuel Bell; Providence City Councilmember John Goncalves; Linda Perri, President of the Washington Park Association; Dr Andrew Saal, Chief Medical Officer at Providence Community Health Center (PCHC); candidates for Providence City Council Jackie Goldman and Andrew Poyant; and candidate for Mayor of Providence Gonzalo Cuervo.

Over 40 more people sent in written comments opposing the application, including James Crowley, staff attorney at CLF; State Representative David Morales; and Providence City Councilmember Pedro Espinal (Ward 10).

Much of the public testimony was generated through the efforts of Sunrise Providence and the People’s Port Authority.

[Props to Alexis Thompson, Secretary to the Zoning Board of Review, for running one of the best public hearings I’ve ever sat through, handling the mix of in-person and Zoom testimony with professionalism and expertise.]

Attorney Michael Resnick, representing Narragansett Improvement Co., said to the board that Cumberland Farms, which owns the property now being leased, has entered into an agreement to seek the property, and Narragansett Improvement might be forced to move out in as little as two months. He requested a temporary variance, but the lawyer for the Providence Zoning Board of Review noted that 1) The Board does not have the power to issue variances and 2) a temporary variance is a change to the application making the original application moot.

Though the final decision came down to Narragansett Improvement not meeting the burden of proof necessary to satisfy even one of the four or so conditions required to approve the application, the heart of the issue for the people who live in the mostly poor, mostly BIPOC communities surrounding the Port was that their health is adversely affected by the polluting industries operating there.

In his written and oral testimony, Dr Andrew Saal, representing Providence Community Health Centers, an abutter to Narragansett improvement, noted that, “The asphalt grinding facility… has been operating for at least two years. In addition to chronic dust and petroleum odors that our staff regularly report, the grinding has also had some highly visible downwind effects.”

Dr Saal told a story of how, on August 26, 2019, a “smelly white shroud crossed the street and left a tar-like residue on the cars belonging to the PCHC employees and patients of the health center. The residue was described as sticky, gritty, oily, and smelling of tar.” Nearly 50 staff reported the tar-like substance. Though Narragansett Improvement paid to clean the affected vehicles, “the more profound question,” said Dr Saal, was “Oh my God, did we breathe that same cloud?”

The answer is yes, noted Dr Saal, adding, “there is no power-wash or solvent to remove that from our lungs.”

Despite this, and the fact that the people living in the area around the Port suffer from the highest rates of asthma in Rhode Island, if New England, the climate and health effects of businesses in the Port cannot be taken into account by the Providence Zoning Board of Review. Providence’s Climate Action Plan, and the recently passed state wide Act on Climate legislation have not yet been written into the city’s zoning codes of comprehensive plan.

Without this, many boards, councils and other decision making entities in our state claim they are unable to deny applications of health and climate grounds.

Here’s the video of the meeting, and links to the publicly available documents:

338 Allens Ave – Application for Use Variance for non-waterfront dependent use in a W-3 zoning district; Images of subject propertyDPD RecommendationRobert Azar Resume

The Providence Waterfront

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