Efforts to Save Metacomet Golf Club From Development Stymied
November 30, 2020
EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The City Council is off to a rocky start with the potential acquisition of the Metacomet Golf Club property.
At its Nov. 24 meeting, council members clashed with each other and the city solicitor. And they mismanaged a vote to hire an attorney who specializes in land acquisition.
Council member Ricardo Mourato was displeased with city solicitor Michael Marcello for his handling of the eminent domain discussions. Mourato accused Marcello of resisting outside legal help to advise on an appraisal for the 138-acre property on Veterans Memorial Parkway.
“We keep going around and around with these discussions as far as eminent domain,” Mourato said.
Mourato also accused Marcello of keeping information from the City Council, and asked that responses to the request for proposals (RFP) go through the city clerk before being reviewed by Marcello.
Marcello said it was the first time he heard complaints about him withholding information.
“To suggest that these request for proposals would come to me and I would somehow screen them or block them is offensive to me as a lawyer,” Marcello said. “And is frankly offensive to me as a solicitor. It’s just not my role. I would never do that. I would give you that information. I would never ever consider not giving you every piece of mail that I got in response to this request for proposal.”
Mourato replied, “I can give you plenty of examples about how you misled this council. Well-documented examples.”
The City Council member mentioned issues with department heads, clerk resolutions, and resolutions for capital improvement requests. Mourato then asked for a vote to authorize an RFP for hiring an attorney. According to city, this specialized legal help could cost $100,000.
But council member Robert Rodericks insisted on getting an appraisal first.
“Let’s not throw thousands of dollars towards another attorney,” he said.
Council president Robert Britto, who opposes acquiring Metacomet, said hiring an attorney would be too expensive and urged a meeting with Marshall Properties Inc., the Pawtucket-based developer that bought Metacomet in September.
Mayor Roberto DaSilva, who opposes taking the property by eminent domain, said an appraisal would cost $15,000, plus $300 an hour if the appraiser had to testify before the council or in court.
One of the supporters for considering eminent domain, council member Anna Sousa, wasn’t present and Mourato lost the RFP vote, 2-2. A tie nullifies the vote.
Sousa, who is a registered nurse at Rhode Island Hospital, joined the meeting minutes later from her car and asked for a redo. But Britto and Rodericks wouldn’t consent.
“I’m not in favor of this, so by no means would I consider a revote on this,” Britto said.
Mourato then requested that the vote to issue the RFP for a legal specialist be taken again at a December meeting.
Taxes and revenue
Council member Nathan Cahoon is crunching numbers to see if lease payments from a potential tenant at Metacomet would pay the debt service should a bond be needed for the city to buy the property.
“It has to produce something from a monetary standpoint in order for it to be fiscally viable,” he said.
“If we were to take this over, we have to find a way to sustain itself,” Rodericks added. “It can’t just sit there.”
A request for information from organizations interested in operating a business on the property hasn’t elicited any proposals. The deadline for submissions is Dec. 15.
Finance director Malcolm Moore reported that every $1 million of debt adds about 1 percent to the city’s property tax rate, or about 20 cents to the current tax rate of $21.20. Residential taxpayers would pay between $21 and $46 more annually for each $1 million of debt.
Moore noted with the loss of revenue from the car tax and debt payments for the new high school would make it challenging to incur additional borrowing.
Britto estimated that the property would be appraised at “a bare minimum of $10 million.” According to city tax records, Marshall Properties bought the golf club for $7.65 million. Metacomet was last assessed in 2018 for $3.9 million.
The residents group Keep Metacomet Green! has claimed that based on recent sales of golf courses Metacomet isn’t worth more than $4.5 million.
“Open space zoning places significant restrictions on the percentage of the property upon which a developer can build,” the group wrote in an Oct. 30 statement of policy. “In the case of Metacomet, that zoning limitation, combined with significant unbuildable acreage within the cove, the abutting flood zone and the 200-foot buffer zone mandated by the Coastal Resources Management Council and City of East Providence zoning ordinance, significantly diminishes the fair market value of the property.”
Cahoon noted that he and Rodericks met with officials from Marshall Properties to find out if they would consider bypassing the eminent domain process and sell Metacomet directly to the city.
“I explicitly asked them if they are interested in a friendly sale and they indicated that they are not,” Cahoon said.
The City Council, he said, has two choices: pursue eminent domain or negotiate with Marshall Properties about what it builds on the property.
The developer has submitted preliminary plans to the city suggesting it might build a school, hospital, or sportsmen’s club. The developer abandoned its bid to have the property rezoned from open space to commercial and residential, which would have allowed it to build a mixed-used retail and housing development.
An upcoming auction of Metacomet’s golf equipment and furniture shows that Marshall Properties has no intention of resuming golf operations. Lockers, bar furniture, and tractors will be offered during the Dec. 9 online sale.
DaSilva said his office in “turning over every leaf” to find potential donors. But land protection groups such as The Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island don’t have money on hand for open-space acquisition. In 2018, The Nature Conservancy bought the development rights to protect 80 acres of the Agawam Hunt country club with money raised by club members, not with the organization’s own funds.
During the public comment period of the Nov. 24 council meeting, Candace Seel of Keep Metacomet Green! said Marcello’s actions and advice to the council for acquiring Metacomet have been “uniformly negative and unhelpful.”
“Let’s just get serious and get the appraisal done as soon as possible and we’ll all know what the value is,” she said.
Resident David O’Connell argued against the land taking, saying only one-tenth of a square mile of the Metacomet property would have structures on it if Marshall Properties goes forward with its latest development plan.
“To consider that removing one-tenth of 1 square mile of green growth would have any affect on the entire world and climate change is just beyond understanding,” he said.
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