Marshall Properties Accused of Cutting Down Trees to Spite City
Elected officials consider taking the property by eminent domain
October 9, 2020
EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In an ongoing power play, the new owners of the Metacomet Golf Club are accused of cutting down trees to spite neighbors and the city.
Just days after buying the golf course on Veterans Memorial Parkway for $7.6 million, Marshall Properties Inc. felled at least two mature trees — an apparent warning shot to the five-member City Council for considering a rule that would require a permit for tree removal.
At the Oct. 6 City Council meeting, city solicitor Michael Marcello said Marshall Properties attorney Zachary Darrow informed him that the tree cutting was done “to establish their rights on the property.”
“They have no intention of clear-cutting the property,” Marcello said, “but in light of the ordinance that was introduced they felt they had no choice but to at least, with this item on the docket, to move forward with at least cutting before the ordinance is passed.”
Marcello noted that the city has no legal authority to issue a cease-and-desist order for additional tree removal.
Nicholas Hemond, another attorney for Marshall Properties, said the Pawtucket-based developer will sue the city if the tree ordinance is approved.
“In the event that that passes, it is effectively a condemnation and constructive taking of my client’s property that only invites litigation, and it’s litigation we do not want to have,” he said.
Hemond accused the city of “changing the game” after the developer submitted its master plan to the city on Sept. 16 for the 138-acre property.
“This ordinance,” he said, “is effectively a proposal to end-a-round their ability to utilize their property within the zoning ordinance that’s been passed by your predecessors over the years. And it’s fundamentally unfair.”
Hemond said passing the ordinance would impair the ability of the company to develop the property, so “we’d have no choice but to defend our rights as property owners and we will do that.”
He said Marshall Properties is willing to negotiate a resolution for developing the property.
City Council president Robert Britto noted his willingness to negotiate with Marshall Properties and asked that it suspend tree cutting.
“I wouldn’t mind talking personally to your client, yourself, or whomever to at least stop any other cutting from this point forward,” Britto said. “I’m more than happy to reach out to whomever I need to reach out if we could just stop the cutting of trees at this point and time so we can get some dialogue with respect to this.”
Other council members were offended by the company’s maneuvering.
“I’m just tired of hearing their threats right now,” City Council member Robert Rodericks said. “So when I look at the cutting of those trees without an approved plan and so on, to me that’s spiteful.”
City Council member Anna Sousa sponsored the tree protection draft ordinance. She noted that saving trees and the Metacomet property is a local and global health and climate issue.
Sousa agreed with Rodericks about the impasse with Marshall Properties.
“Where the developer comes into the city and wants to work with the community but then blatantly goes and spitefully cuts down the trees, that this is a passion of many us is to preserve these hundred-plus-year-old trees that provides us as living species with the clean oxygen that we need is really important,” she said. “We choose to live in a place that respects nature.”
Sousa compared the Metacomet property to Central Park in New York City: a public green space that benefits the entire city. She noted that the city’s comprehensive plan suggests protecting the city’s golf courses.
“It’s the people who live, work, and play in the city and those are the voices that we should be listening to. And I think your voices have been heard,” Sousa said to applause from residents who oppose the development project.
Council members Ricardo Mourato and Nathan Cahoon also supported the idea of a tree ordinance and agreed to revise the first draft and discuss the proposed rule at the council’s Nov. 3 meeting.
“I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that we see this ordinance proposal and we see a bunch of trees come down,” Cahoon said. “Accordingly, that tells me that we need to do everything possible and examine every possible option to make sure that we preserve that piece of property in such a state that it’s there and it’s put to the best use for the community and for future generations.”
Britto was the lone objector to the tree ordinance.
The tree ordinance discussion overshadowed a letter and resolutions submitted in the General Assembly asking that the golf course be protected through the city’s use of eminent domain.
In a Sept. 29 letter to the City Council, Rep. Gregg Amore, D-East Providence, compared the plan to a Hail Mary pass, “but, anyone who watches football knows that those passes connect on occasion and it changes the outcome of the game,” he wrote.
The resolutions submitted by Amore and Sen. Valarie Lawson, D-East Providence, call for creating the Metacomet Conservancy Land Trust to oversee responsibility for the parcel and preserve its accessibility to the public. State funds from open-space protection bonds would pay for the acquisition.
Marshall Properties didn’t respond to requests for comment on the eminent domain proposal and the tree cutting.
The council supported Amore and Lawson’s concept, passing the resolution, 4-1, with Britto against. They acknowledged that conserving the land would require considerable time and luck but agreed that the state agencies and conservation groups should be asked to assist with protecting the land and help draft an acquisition plan. The council also asked Marcello to explore legal options for halting construction on the property while the eminent domain idea is explored.
Britto said eminent domain is reserved for highway projects and blighted land.
“But to take over a property for the sake of ‘just because,’ I think it’s a poor decision, personally,” he said.
He noted that there is adequate recreational space in the Metacomet neighborhood with athletic fields and playgrounds at the 26-acre Pierce Memorial Field and the East Bay Bike Path next to Veterans Memorial Parkway.
“It’s not as if we’re lacking open space or recreational space in that area. We’re not,” Britto said. “We have so much open space and the public has access to that open space. Most of you never had access to Metacomet. … You gotta have it in order for it to be taken away from you. If you never had Metacomet before, how’s it affecting your well-being when you never had access to walking on that property?”
If the city buys Metacomet, other golf course will expect to be taken over, Britto reasoned.
“We need to all just settle down, take a deep breath, and come together and talk with the developer,” he said. “I don’t think this eminent domain is going to go through. And if it does it’s going to cost the city a lot of money. Money that we do not have. … I have concern about taking over property that is private property.”
Residents at the meeting disagreed. They want the property protected from future development.
Candy Seel of the citizens group Keep Metacomet Green! noted that city documents like the charter and comprehensive plan call for creating open space. She said state law says eminent domain allows for the taking of land for public ownership and use.
“It can’t be any clearer that every governing document in our city stresses the importance of open space and authorizes the city to purchase or take private land to achieve that purpose,” the South Broadway resident said.