HOLYOKE — After taking testimony Tuesday (March 31) for more than two and a half hours, city boards continued to April 14 a public hearing on a request from Gary Rome Hyundai for a zone change to build a dealership on Whiting Farms Road.
“I believe in Holyoke and I want to help grow Holyoke,” Rome said.
The hearing had to be moved from City Council Chambers upstairs to the City Hall auditorium to handle the large crowd.
Rome wants to build a $10 million dealership that would produce 50 new full-time jobs and some part-time positions on a vacant site of nearly 19 acres.
The City Council Ordinance Committee and the Planning Board held the hearing.
Most who spoke in the hearing — including Mayor Alex B. Morse — praised Rome’s plan for the jobs and property taxes it would bring.
Some said approval would help set a new tone for Holyoke as a city friendly to business projects instead of just being one with a high commercial tax rate.
Rome said before the event that he had about 100 supporters there, including dealership employees.
Three residents spoke against the plan and instead in favor of a multi-family use they said would be more compatible with their neighborhood.
The Ordinance Committee and Planning Board were considering a petition from Rome to change the zoning designation of the property to Business Highway, which would allow an auto dealership, from the current Business General, which prohibits such a business.
Rome’s plan to buy the property from the Holyoke Gas and Electric Department for $2,050,000 is contingent on getting the zone change.
If he secures the zone change, Rome would need to seek a special permit from the City Council to run an auto dealership on the site, officials said.
Rome said his family has business roots in Holyoke dating to 1890. He would still operate the current dealership at 1000 Main St. here if the city approves the Whiting Farms Road plan, he said.
“I am not selling it to anyone. I will retain ownership,” Rome said.
The proposed dealership and the existing one would mean Rome would have a yearly employee payroll of more than $7 million, he said.
“The new Gary Rome Hyundai will bring 50 — yes, 50 — new full-time employees,” said Rome, along with some part-timers.
Lawyer Thomas N. “Toby” Wilson, representing Rome, said Rome is a local business, not a big-box outsider. That was a reference to how plans from Walmart and Lowe’s Home Improvement in previous years for the site Rome wants to develop were fought by residents.
“This is a great night for Holyoke,” Wilson said.
What this project is not, Wilson said, is spot zoning. He noted how concerns about spot zoning have kept councilors and other officials busy recently — such as with a proposal from the Greater Holyoke YMCA that was shot down recently.
“This project is key to Holyoke’s future….It’s going to remove that cloud that Holyoke’s not business friendly,” Wilson said.
Perhaps anticipating the incompatibility argument, architect Timothy Murphy said Rome’s project would fit because the area between Interstate 91 and Route 5 has developed in mixed-use fashion over the years.
Current property uses in the area include industrial park, general business, residential and Donahue School, he said.
“So you can see how the parcels developed over time in a totally mixed-use kind of way,” Murphy said.
Rome wants the dealership built as “green,” or environmentally friendly, as possible, with LED lighting, solar panels and water retention and recovery, he said.
Morse said Rome’s project would add to the expansion of the tax base the city needs. Other projects include the planned redevelopment of the former Lynch School at Northampton and Dwight streets, the marketing of the former Holyoke Geriatric Authority at 45 Lower Westfield Road and the expansion of Marcotte Ford on Main Street, he said.
“I’m here to express my full support for the expansion of Gary Rome Hyundai,” Morse said.
Gayle Keith of Farnum Drive stepped to the microphone. She is among those who oppose an auto dealership for the nearly 19-acre site and would rather see a residential use, she said.
Hearings on the residents’ zone-change proposal and Rome’s should have been separate, she said.
“This is really not a great way for us to do this…I don’t know why we’re doing this as one thing….I don’t feel comfortable talking to this many people,” Keith said.
“It’s a big family neighborhood and what we don’t need is a car dealership stuck smack dab in the middle…Why do we deserve this? Why do we deserve the highway, the mall…At what point do we have peace in our homes?” Keith said.
An auto dealership wasn’t a priority in a survey the city did last year of residents to gauge what was desired for the nearly 19 acres, she said.
“Mr. Rome is a very nice guy, that’s what everybody says. We’re nice people, too…At what point do we get respect? I guess that’s all I have to say,” Keith said.
Planning Board Chairwoman Mimi Panitch said the plan Rome was displaying showed about half the property would be paved.
“How much of this paving is really necessary to the economic success of this project and is there any chance of scaling it back?” Panitch said.
Rome said that actually, a significant part of the nearly 19 acres would remain green, unpaved. Also, at least 20 to 30 feet of greenery would exist between Whiting Farms Road and the front of the proposed dealership, he said.
Panitch said a concern is that while residents now look upon the site as a meadow, the plan would change that to pavement.
Rome said he wanted to differ with a point Keith made that the building in the planned dealership would be a “sheet-metal behemoth.” The structure would have brownish earth tones, he said.
“It should fit in with the neighborhood,” Rome said.
Ordinance Committee member Gordon P. Alexander also asked Rome about the site having extensive paving when fully developed.
“It will be pretty well paved,” Rome said.
Alexander asked if the greenery between Whiting Farms Road and the dealership would be a lawn or would include trees. The space would include shrubs but no trees, Rome said.
“By the way, thank you for developing in Holyoke,” Alexander said.
“You’re welcome,” Rome said.
Alexander asked if Rome considered other sites in the city.
Wilson said this site was appropriate because it is vacant, which means no building demolition costs, and the site is attractive because of its proximity to Interstate 91.
Again, questions arose about the content of the hearing. Planning Board member John Kelley said the discussion should be about the proposal to change a property’s zoning designation, not a site-plan review debate about a project’s specifics.
When Keith spoke, Kelley said, he heard remarks that were more opposition to Rome’s project instead of a support for the residents’ zone-change petition for the site, to RM-20, a multifamily residential use.
Planning Board member Eileen Regan underscored what Kelley said.
“I think we need to be very careful about what we’re here for,” Regan said.
“So I take very seriously the recommendation of Mr. Kelley and Ms. Regan,” said Lisi, inviting Keith to the microphone again to discuss the multifamily residential zone option.
The plan to get a use agreeable to the neighborhood for the nearly 19 acres gained speed with the eventually withdrawn Walmart plan in 2013, Keith said.
If residents don’t want such a big-box or certain other uses, she said, what do they want? she asked, and they came up with a mixed-use residential desire to allow for flexibility.
Planning Board member Mark A. Joy asked Keith why such an intensive kind of residential use was chosen.
Keith said residents studied various uses. The so-called RM-20 allowed the flexibility signaled by those who completed last year’s the survey, which noted desires for clean air, aesthetics and low traffic, she said.
“It definitely pointed to something that was more low key,” Keith said.
Joy said such a use would allow for 300 residential units and that would produce a lot of traffic.
“I think an RM-20 would create a more intense use than anything else before us,” Joy said.
“We’re not claiming to be perfect,” Keith said. “It would create a certain amount of traffic.”
Eileen Bresnahan, of Bresnahan Insurance Agency Inc., 100 Whiting Farms Road, was among more than a dozen speakers who lined up to urge approval of the zone change for Rome’s project.
Too often, she said, a business owner who wants to expand “has to come and beg,” noting the difficulty businesses face here sometimes.
“We have plenty of housing. We have vacant buildings we can put more housing in…So let’s grow Holyoke,” Bresnahan said.
Tom Terry, of South Hadley, said he works on Bobala Road as an accountant. A deal is only as good as the people proposing it, he said, and Rome is among the best.
“I hope that you will unanimously support this project,” Terry said.
Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House and the Delaney House, said the Rome project is about helping Holyoke.
“I think Whiting Farms Road is an asset and I think we need to exploit” that to help Holyoke, he said.
Elizabeth Butler, a school teacher, said the city must realize the asset it has in Rome.
“We need to retain and grow businesses such as this one,” Butler said.
James M. Lavelle, the manager of Holyoke Gas and Electric Department (HGE), said the department has owned the property for about 15 years. The property is among HGE assets after acquiring the hydroelectric dam.
No residential-project developers have pitched plans to buy the site. Rome’s is the best option, he said.
“They’re committed to doing a quality development at the site, bringing much-needed jobs and tax revenue …,” Lavelle said.
Michael J. Moriarty, former School Committee member, said new business in the city is what makes sense to help Holyoke. Whiting Farms Road already has all kinds of business, he said.
“I can’t endorse strongly enough that you should all support this endeavor,” Moriarty said.
David Lempke, who works at ISO New England off Whiting Farms Road at 1 Sullivan Road, said despite worries about traffic, that hasn’t been a concern in his experience.
“I don’t ever have to wait in traffic. I don’t ever have to sit and wait to get out into the road,” Lempke said.
Kathleen G. Anderson, president of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, urged the boards to approve the Rome zone change.
“Gary Rome has had a great track record. This project would be an appropriate fit for this parcel,” Anderson said.
Maria Ferrer, owner of MD Beauty Salon and Supplies here, said the city was fortunate to have a business like Rome’s and should support it.
“We need more revenue, we need more jobs for our people,” Ferrer said.
Terri Laramee, of HolyokeFirst, which opposes the Gary Rome dealership plan, said her understanding was the hearing was to be about a zone change.
“I didn’t realize that this was going to be a testimonial for Gary Rome,” Laramee said.
Residents who live there want Holyoke to grow, too, but why should they have to live across from an auto dealership? she said.
She also noted a protest that has been raised by former city councilor Helen F. Norris, that the hearing was being held inappropriately because at least four abutters weren’t notified by mail, as required by state law.
Assistant City Solicitor Kara Cunha said earlier that the hearing could proceed as long as the abutters who didn’t get notices about the hearing get to participate in the hearing at some point. The hearing being continued was partly to ensure additional time to accommodate such residents, officials said.
Norris said she was concerned about how the hearing proceeded. Sticking a Business Highway use in the middle of the neighborhood isn’t the best use, she said.
“Just because he’s a great guy” doesn’t merit Rome getting a zone change, Norris said.
The HGE has said the property hasn’t yielded residential property buyers, but the property has yet to be marketed that way, she said.
Residents in that area have fought inharmonious uses for the Whiting Farms Road area, she said.
“They’re all taxpayers,” Norris said. “It’s a long-lived neighborhood, it’s not transient. And the values of their homes is going to change.”
The city should help Rome seek a more suitable site, she said.
Keith took the microphone again. She wanted to address the point that residents have chased away businesses, she said.
The reason Lowe’s Home Improvement withdrew its plan in 2009 was not because of residents, she said.
Lowe’s at the time said it was backing away from the Holyoke plan on Whiting Farms Road because of economic reasons.
Residents have fought for good quality of life uses for properties in the Whiting Farms Road area, Keith said.
“It’s always ended in tears,” she said.
“People aren’t happy about this, but it’s an astoundingly bad use of that property, to put it Business Highway,” she said.
Lisi proposed the hearing be continued to May 12, given the other hearings and numerous other business items on the Ordinance Committee’s schedule.
Ordinance Committee member David K. Bartley asked why the hearing wouldn’t be resuming until nearly a month and a half.
Lisi noted the multiple hearings and items on the schedule.
Bartley said officials probably have heard all the information needed on the Rome zone-change bid.
“We’re already heard everything,” Barltey said.
Bartley amended the motion to resume the hearing April 14 at 6:30 p.m.
That was approved 3-2 by the Ordinance Committee.
Voting in favor of having the hearing resume on April 14 were members Linda L. Vacon, Jennifer E. Chateauneuf and Bartley.
Voting against that were Lisi and Alexander.