Land Use

City Council Supports Taking Metacomet by Eminent Domain

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Preserving the Metacomet Golf Club property isn’t starting smoothly, as the concept of eminent domain raised tension during a recent City Council meeting.

At the Nov. 10 meeting, a majority of the five-member council favored exploring the concept of buying or appropriating the 138-acre property. But some members weren’t thrilled with city solicitor Michael Marcello’s pitch.

Marcello repeatedly emphasized the expense of a rarely traveled legal path the city would have to follow to acquire the Veterans Memorial Parkway property.

“There’s no question the city has the right to take it if they want to, it’s the process,” Marcello said.

Council member Ricardo Mourato was disheartened that the council wasn’t hearing from Marcello and other city officials about the steps needed to be taken to enact eminent domain.

“It’s very clear that a majority of the council wants it,” Mourato said. “So we should explore that. I honesty feel it’s not being honored.”

He claimed the financial information presented by the city didn’t seem accurate.

“Something doesn’t smell right. It really doesn’t,” Mourato said. “We just have to explore more.”

Marcello suggested forming a subcommittee to explore eminent domain, and he promised to write a timeline for a process that could take six months. But he cautioned, “again it really is a matter of money. This is a policy decision. It doesn’t make any difference to me. I’m here to help you and guide you. But if the council wants to move in that direction, the most important thing is you’ve got to figure out where the money is coming from. And obviously the longer you wait the more expensive eminent domain will be.”

Mourato suggested that the council hire outside legal counsel to lead the review of eminent domain.

Marcello recommended not discussing the use of an outside attorney because the topic wasn’t posted on the meeting’s agenda.

“I advise you not to go down this road,” Marcello said. “It’s not because I’m offended that you want to get legal counsel. Actually I welcome it, frankly, because obviously some council members don’t believe that I’m giving you the right advice.”

The discussion petered out as the council agreed to have the city prepare a request for proposal for hiring an independent attorney.

The 100-minute discussion touched on several key areas necessary for enacting eminent domain.

Marcello explained that the city was granted the use of eminent domain by the General Assembly in 1965. The act, however, states that the property must be used for recreation, parks, or conservation purposes.

Determining the fair-market value and the appraised value of Metacomet was discussed at length. Marcello explained that a property owner must receive “just compensation” for a property that is acquired by the city or state. He said the cost will likely be higher than the recent sale price of $7.6 million. The value is instead based on the highest and best use of the land allowed by its zoning designation. Metacomet is classified as open space. Marshall Properties said it’s considering options such a hospital, school, sportsmen’s club, or a church.

The city must raise the money prior to exercising eminent domain. The process is carried out in Superior Court. If granted by the court, the property owner then has the right to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Eminent domain, Marcello said, can be avoided by reaching a direct-sales agreement with Marshall Properties.

Marshall Properties didn’t respond to a request for comment.

A quitclaim deed filed with the city shows that the property was purchased by Marshall Properties for $7.6 million on Sept. 30. The property was last assessed on Dec. 31, 2018 for $3.9 million. Property taxes are $110,000 annually. A revaluation is expected at the end of 2021.

City tax assessor Sarah Frew noted that golf courses are losing value nationwide and therefore appraising Metacomet as a golf course wouldn’t be the highest and best use.

There are three options for the city to raise the money: issuing a bond; use of city rainy day funds; or the use of capital funds.

Capital funds are the easiest to tap into, but the amount available is limited. Issuing a municipal bond is the most common practice and requires a voter referendum. A special election could take six months to plan and complete.

Some $6 million in capital funds are available and could be used for the purchase, according to the city’s Finance Department. The use of the funds wouldn’t impact paying the debt service for the new high school.

Council president Robert Britto, who opposes the acquisition of Metacomet, said a municipal bond could cost the city $1 million annually in debt service.

Grants may offset the amount needed for a bond. State open space and recreational property grant programs offered by the Department of Environmental Management would likely be relied on for paying part of the acquisition.

The Nature Conservancy offered to help with fundraising, but noted that raising $7.6 million or more is likely too steep. The property scores low on the conservation group’s ranking of environmental habitats.

Mayor Roberto DaSilva and Mourato spoke with the Robert Ward, executive director of the Rhode Island Golf Association, and other experts about continuing to operate Metacomet as a golf course.

DaSilva indicated that a golf course might be too expensive for the city to own and operate. Repairs to Metacomet’s irrigation system, clubhouse, and barn would cost between $3 million and $4 million. A private vendor wouldn’t likely pay more than $200,000 per year to the city to manage the course as an independent business.

Mourato said he envisions Metacomet as another Colt State Park or a public golf course that draws people from nearby neighborhoods and new developments, such as the former Chevron property along Veterans Memorial Parkway.

He countered the assertion that golf is a money loser by saying, “I keep hearing that golfing is on the decline and I have a hard time believing that.”

Mourato noted that municipal golf courses like the Falmouth Country Club in Falmouth, Mass., pay rent of $425,000 per year to the town.

North Kingstown’s town manager and two council members told Mourato that the town’s municipally owned and operated golf course is highly profitable, making $1.4 million for the town in 2019. The course hosted 4,238 rounds of golf in October and is on track to make $1.7 million in 2020, Mourato said. Much of the revenue comes from renting the clubhouse for special events.

“They are loving that golf course. Loving it,” Mourato said.

He noted that Jamestown is investing $2 million to improve its nine-hole golf course. He said other outdoor venues such as farms and rural breweries are making money off weddings and events. Demand for outdoor events like these will increase, especially with the recent loss of the Venus de Milo event center in Swansea, Mass., according to Mourato.

“All of these opportunities need to be explored before we make that decision. There’s all these possibilities,” he said. “It’s a gold mine. We’re not thinking outside the box.”

The City Council approved, 4-1, a request for information (RFI) from organizations that have an interest in operating a business on the property should the city acquire the land.

“We ought to at least understand what the landscape is, the market landscape for being able to assist the city with keeping and operating that property,” said City Council member Nathan Cahoon, sponsor of the resolution.

The RFI follows state House and Senate resolutions asking that the city consider eminent domain for acquiring Metacomet.

ecoRI News made multiple requests to the city for the presentation about acquiring the Metacomet property but have not received it.

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