Opposition to Development of Metacomet Golf Club Builds
August 10, 2020
EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Aug. 6 hearing for rezoning the Metacomet Golf Club was canceled after the city failed to post the event on the secretary of state’s online calendar.
Opponents of transforming the green space into an office park, condominiums, and shopping center with restaurants interpreted the oversight as another deliberate act to stifle resistance to the project. The growing opposition movement pointed to a lack of information about the rescheduled public hearing on the city’s website and noted that only a single legal notice was published, in the local weekly newspaper.
This behavior, opponents claimed, appears to be part of a larger strategy to facilitate the development of the Metacomet Golf Club. This effort, they said, includes transferring the jurisdiction of the 138-acre property to the city’s pro-construction Waterfront District Commission.
The rescheduled hearing is set for Aug. 11 at 6 p.m. at Martin Middle School, 111 Brown St. Public viewing and participation will also be available online. A second possible meeting date hasn’t been announced.
If the Veterans Memorial Parkway property is rezoned from open space to commercial and residential, it can qualify for a federal opportunity zone designation that allows developers and other investors to receive special tax benefits.
“It’s suspicious,” said Candy Seel, a resident of South Broadway and a leader in the neighborhood opposition to the rezoning effort.
Seel was one of 15 opponents of the Metacomet redevelopment plan to attend a mini-rally the outside Martin Middle School on the night of the canceled meeting.
Waving “Keep Metacomet Green” signs and wearing T-shirts with the same slogan, they noted that the approval process is moving too quickly for residents to grasp the scope of the project — a situation made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s hard to organize during a pandemic. It’s just too much,” said Connie Crawford, a resident of Fenner Avenue. “Very few residents know about it. We want to slow this process down so we can carefully look at the property.”
The proposed zoning change is critical to the development going forward, Crawford said. If approved by the City Council, the developer, Marshall Properties Inc., will likely exercise its option to buy the property. The Pawtucket-based commercial developer can then build or sell the land to owners with a different vision for the property.
“The zoning is very important,” Crawford said.
The city’s comprehensive plan states that, “Development of any of the City’s golf courses would result in a loss of open space which would be a detriment to the overall recreation and open space system of East Providence.”
Yet, as Seel noted, the plan lacks explicit protections for many open spaces like Metacomet, leaving an opportunity for developers to build, especially if the comprehensive plan is amended so that the property falls under the jurisdiction of the Waterfront District Commission.
Seel and other opponents wanted to know why more economically distressed neighborhoods with existing commercial centers aren’t being offered revitalization plans.
“Develop what we have,” said Riverside resident M.B. Dwyer. “Why ruin something else?”
The Waterfront District Commission was created by the General Assembly in 2003 to develop 25 shoreline parcels along the Providence and Seekonk rivers. The quasi-state agency is seen as a tool to speed up commercial development. The commission also has a history of transparency issues.
In 2017, three members of the City Council threatened to dissolve the 19-member Waterfront District Commission for ignoring elements of the comprehensive plan and for repeatedly voting without a quorum.
Sen. William J. Conley Jr., D-East Providence, an attorney for Marshall Properties Inc., is also causing concern regarding his role in the project. Conley, chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, sponsored a resolution in 2018 to have the neighborhood, which includes the golf course, receive the opportunity zone designation.
Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick, the House majority leader, is also part of Marshall Properties’ legal team.
Marshall Properties has rejected the insinuation that there was any inside or long-term plan to buy and redevelop the historic golf course. The city’s chief economic planner, James Moran, also has refuted the notion that seeking the opportunity zone designation was intended to benefit the Metacomet project.
In a July 29 memorandum, Moran noted that golf courses are ineligible for opportunity zone tax benefits. During the state’s vetting and the city’s marketing of the site, he wrote that staff didn’t at any time “ever represent that the Metacomet Golf Club was a potential candidate for Opportunity Zone designation.”
To boost public support for the development, Marshall Properties has hosted online public meetings and recently sent a mailer to residents titled “You Spoke. We Listened.” In it, the developer promises to put in writing that it will not build a hotel and only build residential structures along Fisher and Fort streets. The developer also says it plans to preserve 30 acres of open space and create natural buffers and other landscaped features.
“It is very safe to assume developers from outside East Providence may not be inclined to offer these same concessions,” according to the recent mailer.