Land Use

Opposition Emerges as Nature Center Prepares to Break Ground

Construction of the Arcadia Natural Resources & Visitors Center is expected to begin in March. (DEM)

The towns of Exeter and Richmond have joined the opposition to a planned welcome center and office building in Rhode Island’s largest protected forest and recreation area.

The Richmond Town Council voted Feb. 22 to have the town attorney investigate options to oppose the $7.2 million Arcadia Natural Resources & Visitors Center that would serve the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

Richmond Town Council president Paul Michaud said the 13,000-square-foot building sited next to Browning Mill Pond in the Arcadia Management Area would displace a site popular for picnicking and sledding.

“The spot they choose is one of the most ideal spots for folks in my town,” Michaud said. “I just think they need to find a new spot for that project.”

Michaud recommended that DEM consider building on state-owned land in town or in nearby communities where there is less use by the public.

The recent vote by the Richmond Town Council comes days after Exeter issued a stop-work order for the project. Exeter officials said the project, which touches both communities, violates local zoning rules and requires several permits, in addition to an administrative review.

The action by the two towns comes after an online petition received more than 870 signatures in opposition to the project. Exeter resident Katrina Thornley started the petition.

“The creation of the building will ultimately change the use of the area and will detract from the beauty of the town as a whole,” Thornley wrote in the appeal.

Signers of the petition suggested that the building is better suited for a vacant shopping center and other sites of former businesses in Richmond.

DEM blamed itself for the pushback by failing to reach out to the public about its intention to develop the land.

“I think the crux of the issue is that people are surprised about the project,” said Larry Mouradjian, associate director of DEM’s Office of Natural Resources.

Mouradjian said the structure is visually appealing and complements the wooded setting around the pond. He noted that the site isn’t located in pristine wilderness, but rather in an area that was used publicly as a state park before it was added to the Arcadia Management Area.

He said the project has been planned for nearly four years. Planning started after the Office of Fish and Wildlife was forced to move from the government center building in Wakefield. The office was scattered to small, outdated cabins in the Great Swamp Management Area in South Kingstown and to DEM’s Providence headquarters. None of these sites were worthy of rehabilitating, according to Mouradjian.

DEM choose the Browning Mill Pond site because of its proximity to most of DEM’s parks and fieldwork in rural Washington County.

Mouradjian said the building is a fitting structure to complement the range of activities in the 14,000-acre preserve, such as hunting, fishing, hiking, kayaking, biking and bird watching.

Several design features are intended to minimize the project’s environmental impact, such as wastewater-treatment and stormwater-runoff systems. It is set back 145 feet from the Browning Mill Pond to reduce harming the water body. The structure was designed so that the bottom floor is below ground level and thus only the top level is visible from the road.

The parking lot has 42 spaces and only 15 to 30 vehicles are expected to use the lot at one time.

“We’ve been careful about the design of the building given where it is,” Mouradjian said.

In addition to serving as a welcome center, the building will offer public restrooms and space for conference meetings and education programs. It also includes a large, public outdoor terrace. The building will have laboratory space for state biologists. It will house the state veterinarian, the Division of Fish and Wildlife and the Division of Forest Environment.

The full $7.2 million cost of the project has been funded in past DEM budgets.

One problem opponents face is that the project has already been approved and received its permits. Construction is expected to begin next month and be finished by March 2018.

It’s not clear if and how the project can be delayed. In its cease-and-desist order, Exeter cites a 1982 state Supreme Court case that says the town has standing to require local permitting on a state project. In the court case, residents along Blackstone Boulevard in Providence opposed expansion of a state rehabilitation facility on the city’s East Side.

DEM has promised to hold a public hearing, but no date has been announced.

Update March 2 at 3:49 p.m.: A community meeting has been scheduled for March 9 at 6 p.m. in the Richmond Elementary School cafeteria, 190 Kingstown Road in Wyoming.

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  1. Who’s idea is this? The Raimondo administration is into leveling forested land (Citizens Bank off of 295) without considering the huge number of vacant lots in towns around Providence. This is bad environmental policy. It looks like they are building DEM a palace with a view at the expense of the public. Stop it now!

    • Businesses like campuses, this is no different. DEM is only proving why all this using the state to oppose development is hypocritical. There is nothing wrong with the Citizen’s bank development. This is just what happened along 128 and kept Boston’s economy strong when no one wanted to locate in downtown boston. We are in precisely the same predicament. Noone wants to locate a business in providence.

      That said, 7.2 million dollars for a brandy spanking headquarters when they can’t maintain the park seems likes stupid spending. I don’t have any objection to the idea of a building or locating employees closers to the parkland they are managing but the level of spending and ‘panache’ is outrageous and reflects a complete lack of priority since they can’t maintain the park at all. and DEM of course was the one taking annual money and secreting it for this project rather than addressing needs in the park. If they are going to build somehting, how about a maintenance building in General Steel style with a few trailers for offices for maybe 500,000 dollars. It may be that such a facility is well suited to the no mans land between rte. 3 and 95 as was suggested above.

  2. There isn’t enough money in the budget for trail management and they want this? The bridge at the end of Breakheart Pond has been ‘out’ for over a year; popular trailhead/fishing spot with parking lot but now you can’t hike/bike/ride around the pond. They say they may have funds by late spring….

  3. Love the idea of using "vacant shopping centers" for projects, ecori should send DEM and other agencies the recent story they did on such sites, we are likely to get many more of them

  4. I want to thank Katrina Thornley for starting the petition and bringing this plan to my attention. As far as the building being "visually appealing," most people would agree that NO BUILDING would be the most visually appealing. Finally, is "reduce, reuse, recyle" just lip service and meant to only apply to plastic bags? Using the "vacant shopping centers" seems like a no-brainer – these buildings (old Stop & Shop and Walgreens) are only about 4 miles away from the park – after years of being scattered all over the state, this would be a vast improvement for DEM employees. It just doesn’t seem like those paid to defend wild spaces in RI have any idea what they’re doing! I too am starting to wonder if Raimondo is just looking around and to see where she can pave next, especially after ramming the "Welcome Center" in Hopkinton down our throats despite the town’s voting against it in a referendum.

  5. I am in opposition of the construction of this project, it seems that the DEM State planners do not understand the importance of Open Space and preserving the beauty that this State holds. I walk the Trails of Arcadia on a regular basis and have been for most of my life and I have witnessed the degradation of the area for the lack of proper care and maintenance. You can walk anywhere in the Management area only to find infrastructure not maintained and destroyed, only to hear that there is no money in the budget left for that. I fear knowing the history of the care that has been directed to the Arcadia Management Area, that the investment to be made would be a total waste of our Tax Dollars. This area of the State is so rich in history with a land that once was home to old Mills, Farms, the CCC back in the Nineteen Thirties and more. I am disappointed that we as citizens of this state have to raise our voices to bring attention to the problems at hand.
    I propose that they move the site of this project up to the State land on Route 3 (Tefft Hill), the site of a collapsing Pavilion, that is on a main road, that allows access to the management area, via a dedicated underpass below Interstate 95 (due East) of the proposed project. I believe that this would not only preserve the beauty of Browning Mill Pond site, but would enhance the economy for the neighboring Towns of Exeter and Richmond. Arcadia is a Jewel in the State of Rhode Island and to allow this to happen is WRONG !
    Why not use some of the Bond money that the voters approved, to help correct and bring back some of the beauty to Arcadia and other State Parks, land, etc. in our State, not to continue to destroy what we have left.

  6. I am in opposition. There are numerous empty buildings in Providence, Pawtucket, Cranston, etc. etc. (brownfield spaces). There is no reason for this. I don’t understand. Isn’t DEM in place to preserve the environment? RI is being developed acre by acre, slowly there will be but little space for flora and fauna. I can picture the bulldozers, annihilating the plants and destroying where the animals live…having to run. Why does our own DEM not move to a brownfield site?

  7. I have been fishing and hiking around Browning Mill Pond for years. In the past summer, there was so much trash and vandalism of the picnic tables. I think that the building and therefore the increased DEM activity in the area will better the natural beauty in the long run by preventing the litter. The hiking, fishing, and use of the area is still available and will not be impacted. What use is an environmental/ welcome center for DEM in the middle of a shopping plaza?

    • Conner-The litter and vandalism at the pond is certainly a concern. Note that there is already a RIDEM presence in that area. The Arcadia headquarters are just a mile down the road. Additional seasonal workers are employed every summer to maintain the area. Still these issues occur. RIDEM are not hiring any additional staff to maintain the grounds and surrounding trails or to operate the visitors center. If RIDEM is not able to deal with simple concerns like litter and vandalism, how will they maintain a 13,000 square foot office building? Neglect to a structure of that size is sure to cause run-off and erosion that will effect the pond (fishing) and the entire watershed. The buildings primary use is to serve as space for 19 offices and 15 workstations. A building of that size and purpose is better suited for an area with higher traffic where it will have less of an environmental impact on the natural area.

  8. I completely agree with John Bradley’s comments about using the old pavilion site between 95 and route 3.
    Building in this area would have much less impact on the environment and would be readily accessible to DEM staff and to visitors to Arcadia.

  9. The state and Dem already own plenty of building they can occupy.
    No need to build more that you won’t take care of.
    North Kingstown has the former dealership you partially use.
    I don’t want the DEM to build in this nice area.
    Occupancy should not happen by ant permanent building.

  10. I can’t believe how ignorant people on here are. DEM has either purchased or attained perpetual use of hundreds of acres of land that would otherwise be developed all over the State. The vandalism and trash issues isn’t caused by the State but by ignorant citizens that do not respect anything. Putting this compound here would benefit this whole area. It would have a live presence daily, the area would be policed. The building would be built to eco friendly standards and be very low maintenance. Check out the marine unit built in Wickford. Just think how nice it would be for school children to visit and learn, maybe they would grow up to respect the environment. Use common sense not NIMBY.

  11. For once, DEM is going to invest in an area that has been abused for decades by draining financial resources to care for the land. Get over it. Investing in Arcadia will serve to lift this treasured slice of Rhode Island.

  12. I don’t understand why they can’t utilize the buildings at the recently acquired Camp-E-Huntee off of 165 near breakheart pond. I am certain the buildings there would more than suffice. Of course we wouldn’t know that because the "PUBLIC LAND" that we own there is off limits!

  13. “I think the crux of the issue is that people are surprised about the project,” said Larry Mouradjian, associate director of DEM’s Office of Natural Resources. "

    Seems like Providence’s RI DEM, as well as RI DOT, routinely "surprise (back door) the towns of South County. For example: Unannounced new high speed rails lines, truck toll booths, truck stops, to name a few. In fact, everyone should be "aware" of that RI DEM is not shy about promoting the "development" of the entire Pawcatuck River Valley Watershed. http://www.dem.ri.gov/programs/bpoladm/suswshed/desmanul/chapter3_forested.html

    Probably the most damning example of RI DEM’s arrogance is the agency just watches as South County’s irreplaceable wetlands are raped by the mining industry. And all the while mining industry’s toxic leaches into the Pawcatuck "Sole Source" Aquifer. Take a look at Westerly’s most toxic "wetland-based" strip-mine, COPAR. https://www.google.com/maps/@41.3847311,-71.7269528,1750m/data=!3m1!1e3
    (RI DEM has refused to test the mine’s "pus green" ponds. The reason why is obvious to the naked eye.)

    The "illegal" COPAR strip-mine goes on operating thanks to RI DEM’s "NO PERMITS, NO PROBLEM".
    (But what else can you expect from a "Providence" self-serving agency that serves the most corrupt state in the nation?)

    We should all be thankful that Richmond’s TC for realized they didn’t have to rollover (like Westerly’s TC did on the COPAR debacle) as Providence’s arrogant RI DEM and RI DOT bureaucrats ignore the "rule of law".

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