Land Use

Affordability, Environment Loom Large in Consideration of Westerly Housing Development


A full room in Westerly, R.I., as the Planning Board considered a housing proposal for the Winnapaug Country Club. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

WESTERLY, R.I. — As the clock rounded 11:30 p.m., everyone sitting in Town Hall was eager to go home.

Feet tapping, heads in hands, attendees of a Planning Board meeting Tuesday night listened to town planner Nancy Letendre read from a memo she had written to the board about why a proposed 2,300-unit development on the Winnapaug Country Club didn’t fit into Westerly’s comprehensive plan.

Besides approving prior meeting minutes, nearly the entirety of the 5-and-a-half-hour meeting was dedicated to discussion on the potential redevelopment — the culmination of about six months of public debate on the matter.

Developer Winn Properties and its expert witnesses argued that adding the housing units — they claimed 30% would be affordable — would accomplish many of Westerly’s housing goals and wouldn’t negatively impact the local environment. But detractors, many of whom belong to the group Keep Westerly Green and wore that color to show their opposition to the project, said the large number of units would change the character and jeopardize the town’s environmental health.

By the end of the meeting, it was clear that most of the Planning Board members sided with the latter group. As they spoke, one by one, explaining their likely vote for denial, whispers among the green shirts grew louder, with some throwing up fist pumps or thumbs up.

Ultimately, the board didn’t vote Tuesday to deny the project — instead it voted to allow the town planner to draft a decision denying the project, which the board is expected to vote on at its next meeting.

Although it’s unlikely the project will move forward as planned, the fight over its approval highlighted a debate in town over issues like affordability and the environment that are unlikely to go away.


In its proposal, Winn Properties wants to transform the Shore Road country club from a golf course into a 90-building, multifamily 2,300-unit housing development.

The developer initially submitted plans in December that outlined how 30% (690 units) would be deed-restricted affordable housing for people making 60% to 80% of the area median income.

It argued that the project would be “consistent with local needs” because of how it could help boost the town’s affordable housing stock, which currently sits at below 5%, according to HousingWorksRI. The state requires a minimum of 10% long-term affordable housing in each municipality, although few reach or exceed the benchmark.

Doug McLean, a longtime planner and current director of Coventry’s Planning Department, testified that the project would raise Westerly’s affordable housing stock to 9%. In a letter to the board, McLean noted the Winnapaug project would increase housing options and improve the town’s long-term rental market.

To build the complex, the developer asked for waivers to increase density, something that is permitted under new affordable housing law. Although this is allowed, opponents argued the steep increase in housing and density needed on about 120 acres of land was too much to ask for and did not comply with the town’s comprehensive plan.

“It is the Administrative Officer’s opinion that the proposed development of 2,300 apartments is a huge departure from the intent of the Comprehensive Plan as it relates to the Future Land Use Plan for the community, the goal of which is: ‘to strike the appropriate balance between conservation and development and focus on resiliency,’” Letendre wrote in a memo to the Planning Board.

Letendre also noted that the comprehensive plan specifically mentions Winnapaug Country Club “with the intent to preserve its current recreational use and the addition of a hotel,” which the housing development would not align with.


The high volume and density of the project also drew concern about how the development would impact the local environment, including the saltwater pond the country club is named after.

Winn Properties and its expert witnesses argued that it could build treatment systems on the property that could safely handle wastewater and configure the space to limit environmental impacts.

Most of the property lies outside the urban corridor of the town and could not be hooked up to a sewer system, but an analysis from DiPrete Engineering, hired by Winn, showed how the use of denitrification systems, which are meant to reduce potential nitrogen release into groundwater, and pumps to move wastewater away from Winnapaug Pond would be possible on the property.

DiPrete’s Eric Previ acknowledged at Tuesday’s meeting that Winn would need to undergo several review and permitting processes with state agencies before finalizing a wastewater treatment setup.

McLean in his memo wrote that the analysis shows on-site treatment is possible, although sewer expansion would be preferred.

The analysis and testimony did not assuage everyone.

Golf course sign
Much of the town was opposed to the housing proposal on the Shore Road property. (Colleen Cron in/ecoRI News)

Alicia Schaffner, executive director of the Salt Ponds Coalition, an organization that tests, protects, and advocates for the health of several salt ponds in Rhode Island, spoke at the meeting to explain her concern about how the density of the project could impact Winnapaug Pond.

Currently, conditions at the pond are neither exceptional nor bad, she said.

“You’re teetering in that kind of ambiguous area right in between, where if something goes wrong, you might end up in the bad zone,” said Schaffner, explaining how increased nutrients, perhaps from a septic failure or more untreated runoff, could lead to algal blooms or lower dissolved oxygen levels. 

These issues could hurt the organisms that live in and around the pond, the people who use it for recreation and shellfishing.

Having worked with Charlestown on its own denitrification systems, Schaffner said the town has been successful in reducing nutrient releases into nearby ecosystems, but its not a foolproof system.

“Our worry is that when you have that error, that ultimately it’s going to impact the ponds,” she said.

What happens next?

At the end of the meeting, several Planning Board members listed their top concerns about the project.

“I have serious reservations that we are going to find solutions that will have a development with 2,300 units at the end,” said Matthew O’Neil, adding that he believed that there were parts of the project that are inconsistent with the town’s comprehensive plan.

He noted that it was difficult to weigh two important issues: affordable housing and the character of the town.

Fellow board member Christopher Lawlor said he was hesitant to support something that could have a negative impact on Winnapaug Pond or the rest of the community.

“I support affordable housing, but not by destroying a neighborhood,” he said. “Bottom line, this is just too big a project for this part of town.”

Board chair Justin Hopkins took more of a middle ground, saying there is an “in-between application” that hasn’t been proposed.

He said denying the application could take away some of the Planning Board’s control over the project if the developer wins an appeal.

“We’ll lose control of the process,” he said. “We’ve always kept it in-house.”

Keep Westerly Green is “very pleased” that most of the Planning Board members said they are against approving a comprehensive permit for the project, organization representative Susan Strouse wrote in a statement to ecoRI News.

“But it isn’t over until a formal vote,” she wrote. “If Winn Properties decides to appeal to Superior Court, there will be another hurdle to overcome.”

Strouse wrote that the organization is also glad the board recognized some of the environmental concerns it brought up.

Keep Westerly Green “fully recognizes and supports the need for affordable housing in Westerly,” she added. “The Winnapaug Golf Course is just not the appropriate location for a development of this magnitude with the risk of so many of Westerly’s natural resources.”

Winn Properties Jill Scola declined to comment at the end of the meeting Tuesday night. 

The next Planning Board meeting is scheduled for July 16.


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  1. The idea that the Winnapaug CC site can handle this many units providing water and wastewater disposal via septic systems seems totally ludicrous to me. When are we going to learn that once you’ve overdeveloped and caused environmental harm like pollution of the groundwater or eutrophication it’s almost always too late and there is no going back. I’d love to see the trajectory of water quality of the saltpond over time presented to the public. The idea that Charlestown has got a handle on eutrophication in its saltponds and has somehow curbed the environmental impacts of it’s development south of Route 1 is totally inaccurate from what I’ve seen and heard at meetings and from longtime residents and fishers. And that’s with the presence of shellfish aquaculture which I understand is supposed to mitigate nutrients somewhat. The most unfortunate part of this whole situation is that this project will most likely not be going away anytime soon.

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