Court sends case back to Zoning Board of Appeals

DIGHTON — The fate of land off Stanzione Drive — linked to the controversy over a Wiccan church moving to town –is still up in the air after court review.

The Superior Court has remanded the case back to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which ruled against the owner of the land, Dr. Richard Cohen, last year.

In the ZBA’s second hearing of the case this week, Cohen’s attorney Kevin McRoy said the case before the ZBA is separate from the issue of the Wiccan’s use of an adjoining parcel, also owned by Cohen.

Cohen is asking to build a single-family home for himself on the 31-acre parcel. The problem is the frontage on Wheeler Street is all wetlands and Stanzione Drive has insufficient frontage. Cohen is asking to be allowed to enter through an existing driveway on Stanzione Drive, despite the insufficient frontage.

But neighbors said the two issues — the single family home and the Wiccan church — are inextricably linked.

Abutter Gene Nelson, who is the town’s selectmen chairman but said he attended the meeting in his capacity as a private citizen, said he would have no objection to a single family home but does object to the added traffic that would be created if the church members used the driveway to assemble on the adjoining property.

Cohen had previously deeded an adjoining 18-acre parcel over to the Wiccan church, but the land is now back in his name. That land has no frontage on Stanzione Drive and no viable frontage of Wheeler Street.

“One of the things that really concerns me as a property owner is this other parcel they don’t want to discuss,” Nelson said.

ZBA Chairman Joseph Pacheco asked if Cohen would agree to a deed restriction promising he’d build just the one house on the 31 acres. Cohen agreed, but when Pacheco asked about the other 18 acres, McRoy did not agree. He said anyone who wished to build on it would have to obtain the same variances Cohen is seeking.

“Or obtain permission from Mr. Cohen to use Stanzione Drive,” Pacheco replied.

The Rev. Cheryl Sulyma-Masson — the founder of the Circle of Salgion Church of Wicca Inc. currently based in Rehoboth — said Friday “we’ve made no decisions” about the future use of the 18 acres. “This case has nothing to do with us.”

“They’re the ones who keep saying it (opponents’ objection to the variance) has nothing to do with the church, and they’re the ones who keep bringing it up.”

Nelson made a similar complaint about Sulyma-Masson. He said he has tried to stay out of the case due to his position as a town official but wanted to set the record straight because she “dragged” his name into the case in the past.

McRoy said the Superior Court remanded the case back to the ZBA because the court held the board had not taken into account all the relevant facts. The remand order itself does not state a rationale for the decision.

According to McRoy, it would be inordinately expensive to build a bridge or fill a driveway off Wheeler Street. But even if Cohen could afford to do so, it’s unlikely he could obtain the necessary permits to disturb such a large area of wetlands, about 12,000 square feet.

“It’s not an issue of preference,” he said. Coming in through Wheeler Street is an “insurmountable obstacle.”

But Nelson said Cohen created his own hardship by purchasing an unbuildable piece of land at a very low price. He paid $100,000 for the 50 acres in the late 1990s. Nelson said previous owners had sufficient frontage but chipped away at it little by little as they sold off parcels.

“Where would you find so much land at that cheap a price without something being dramatically wrong with it?” Nelson asked.

The hearing was continued to May 19 at 7:30 p.m.

Board members asked McRoy to produce specific information at that time as to how much it would cost to go in through Stanzione Drive versus Wheeler Street. Several Stanzione Drive residents said they believe Cohen would have to fill significant wetlands off Stanzione Drive as well. Board members also asked for evidence from McRoy that the state Department of Environmental Protection would not allow entry through Wheeler Street.

“You have to ask the question before you can say they’re not going to let you do it,”Stanzione Drive resident Bob Perry said. But McRoy said it’s unreasonable to expect his client to pursue a futile permitting process.

“The opposition is saying we want you to go headstrong into the wind….It’s easy to say when it’s not your money and time,” he said.

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