R.I. Supreme Court Blocks DEM’s Arcadia Visitors Center
May 4, 2020
The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently overturned two lower court decisions, imperiling a visitors center proposed by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for the Arcadia Management Area, the state’s largest conservation and recreation area.
It’s unknown what implications the April 29 ruling by Justice Gilbert V. Indeglia will have on state-sponsored projects by requiring that proposed developments abide by local zoning rules and comprehensive plans.
Prior rulings found that the Rhode Island Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Regulation Act exempted the state from municipal zoning ordinances. But Indeglia argued that the Zoning Enabling Act of 1991 requires state and local land-use disputes to be resolved through the 27-member State Planning Council.
The verdict comes after Superior Court decisions in 2017 and 2018 rejected the claims brought by Exeter and Richmond that a state project is subject to local review. In 2018, cases filed against the development by each town were combined in a single case as an appeal and heard by Indeglia in Supreme Court.
Residents of Richmond and Exeter were irked that the proposed $7.2 million Arcadia Natural Resources & Visitors Center was being sited in both communities without public input. The Department of Environmental Management (DEM) started planning for the facility in 2014. There is disagreement about when town officials were notified. But it wasn’t until about three years later, after the project had been awarded to a developer, that residents had an opportunity to comment on the project.
“It was quite the sore spot for the town considering how (DEM) did it,” Richmond Town Council president Richard Nassaney said. “People were taken aback and quite opposed.”
The proposed 12,716-square-foot building with two parking lots was to serve as a DEM field office and laboratory, with space for school groups and public visits. The main building is sited on land in Richmond and a lot for a parking area and septic system are in Exeter.
Had the towns known that the project would be built next to Browning Mill Pond, a popular recreation area, officials said they would have suggested a suitable alternate site.
“If they put it 500 feet away on the other side of the road no one would have noticed,” Nassaney said.
Exeter Town Council president Calvin Ellis suggested building on top of a hill near the pond, a safe distance away from the recreation area with less risk of pond contamination from the building’s septic system.
“I’m very pleased the Supreme Court gave Exeter and Richmond the opportunity to review the project,” Ellis said.
Another point of concern was that DEM was seeking to install the septic system in violation of the agency’s own setback standards.
“The Supreme Court ruling put DEM on notice that you should follow the rules, especially their own rules,” Nassaney said.
Other residents have argued that DEM should have considered locations within the conservation area where they already have buildings.
“Most residents in the area opposed the project entirely because we have seen how DEM has taken care of the area in the past and we have seen their other buildings left to rot,” said Katrina Thornley, an early opponent of the project. “We don’t want another eyesore in the area.”
If DEM wishes to proceed with the project, it must first abide by a review from the State Planning Council and then go before local zoning and planning boards to assure the development meets local regulations and complies with the local master plans.
DEM has yet to say how it will proceed with the case in court or if it will go forward with the project through the full state and municipal review. In a statement the agency said, “We are currently reviewing the decision.”