Potential Metacomet Developer Doesn’t Like What Was Said
August 17, 2020
EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The potential developers of the Metacomet Golf Club want feedback from residents but, so far, they aren’t liking what they are hearing.
Since the initial plans for the redevelopment went public in June, most of the neighborhood response has been critical of the proposal to turn much of the 138-acre property into stores, offices, and apartments.
That sentiment was amplified during an Aug. 11 City Council hearing at Martin Middle School. But rather than take a consolatory response to the criticism, the team representing Marshall Properties Inc. got defensive and testy.
After about two hours of public feedback, Lianne Marshall chided the audience for being disrespectful and not participating in a constructive manner.
“And there were strong insinuations made tonight about us,” Marshall said, “about our integrity, about our intentions, and there has not been a direct conversation.”
Looking at the audience, Marshall added, “and for all that we are doing to listen through this process, I sincerely ask you to do the same and give us that respect.”
Zachary Darrow, Marshall Properties’ real-estate attorney, challenged the residency of opponents listed on the Keep Metacomet Green! Facebook page. He said there was never any impropriety or conflict of interest about having Sen. William J. Conley Jr., D-East Providence, serve as the project’s lead attorney, even though Conley pushed for a special federal designation that Marshall Properties may benefit from if the property is rezoned.
“There’s been no cooperation, there’s been no collaborating, there’s been no conspiracy,” Darrow said. “I welcome you to bring facts and we’ll address every one.”
Conley, chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, made a veiled threat of legal action if the City Council doesn’t follow the recommendation of the Planning Board and approve changing the zoning for the property from open space to a designation that allows commercial and residential construction.
“Been a lot of speculation, a lot of innuendo, lot of conspiracy theories flying around the room tonight,” Conley said. “Please make your decision on the facts and the law.”
City Council members refrained from commenting on the rezoning case until Ward 4 City Council member Ricardo Mourato took exception to Conley’s remarks.
“All I’ve heard from you is that we are potentially going to be sued, which I don’t really appreciate that at all,” Mourato said. “You are already setting the stage for that and I don’t like that.”
Conley apologized, saying he intended to make the point that Marshall Properties fulfilled the legal standards of its rezoning proposal.
“It has to do with, I have an obligation, on the record, to argue that we have met our legal obligation,” Conley said.
Conley began the hearing by restating Marshall Properties’ role as a responsible steward of the property. The Pawtucket-based developer, he said, is acting in the best interest of the neighbors and city by protecting a portion of the land for public access and driving up local tax revenue.
“It will belong to all of us and no longer to a select few,” Conley said. “Take down the barbed wire … and open it to all of us.”
Conley said $8 million to $10 million in tax collections will “lessen the tax burden on our homeowners,” and he pledged that property values will not decrease for neighbors near the proposed development.
Several residents, however, said their tax bills increased after other big commercial projects were built along Veterans Memorial Parkway, such as Kettle Point. They fear the area would become a heavily trafficked commercial mess like Garden City in Cranston, Mineral Spring Avenue in North Providence, and parts of Pawtucket.
“Once this green space is gone. It’s gone forever,” said Candy Seel, a South Broadway resident and an organizer with the Keep Metacomet Green opposition group.
Seel and others questioned how the Metacomet neighborhood received a federal opportunity zone designation while other, more economically distressed neighborhoods were left out. They said it seemed curious that the property could be under the jurisdiction of the East Providence Waterfront Commission, the quasi-state agency accused of lacking transparency and bypassing resident influence. Part of Marshall Properties’ rezoning request includes placing the property under the jurisdiction of the Waterfront Commission.
Terrence Propper of South Broadway said the rezoning process smacks of favoritism, as no other proposals are being considered by the city. The project, he said, amounts to a bailout for the financially troubled owners of the golf course who had promised to preserve the historic course.
“They are monopolizing the process and cutting out the competition,” Propper said.
Steven Shuman of Winslow Street said having Conley working on behalf of the developer “smacks of impropriety.”
“Such actions promote conspiracy rather than transparency,” he said. “If the good senator cannot see this then he should tender his resignation immediately.”
Shuman noted that the Metacomet Golf Club could endure and thrive like other New England courses that are profiting from warmer weather and longer seasons.
“This seems to me more of a case of profiteering than turning a profit,” he said.
Patrick Brennan of Bent Road, a recent college graduate, said the project will create needed jobs for the city. He noted that the Marshalls have been open and honest with their proposal, while their offer to not develop 30 acres of the golf course is “a very generous contribution.”
Rory Miller of Channing Avenue said it’s not helpful to label anyone as good or bad. He suggested trusting the process while appreciating that it takes money to make changes. The Marshalls, he said, were “probably working hard to do the best for the community.”
Perhaps the most common comment of the night was the plea to slow down the vetting process.
Dennis Moers of Peck Street noted that the coronavirus health crisis is causing people to suffer economically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually.
“We are not through this pandemic and this is a time to pause,” he said.
James Cunningham, a former board member of the Metacomet Golf Club, said the golf course was sold to a group led by local golf legend Brad Faxon thinking that it would be protected.
“We were sold on the Faxon group because they promised to put millions into it,” Cunningham said.
Months later the Faxon group made an agreement to sell the property as a commercial development to Marshall Properties.
“But this isn’t about golf it’s about quality of life and what’s right and what’s fair,” Cunningham said.
Concerns about developing the property and reducing its open space were also brought up in context with the climate crisis.
“How dare we be arrogant enough to build on green space when we know we are in the middle of a climate crisis … and the window to address that is closing,” said Cynthia Mendes, a resident of Bullocks Point Avenue and a candidate for Conley’s Senate seat.
In submitted testimony from Curt Spalding, the former executive director of Save The Bay and the former head of the New England office of the Environmental Protection Agency, he suggested protecting the property’s open space in the name of climate change.
Spalding, a resident of Cranston and a member of the Metacomet Golf Club, praised the golf course for its wildlife and ecological importance. Keeping the entire site as open space serves as an insurance policy against climate change, he said. He noted that the property would help Narragansett Bay adjust to sea-level rise and protect the community from storm surge. He said keeping the site open would also protect public health by limiting the heat-island effect and reducing air pollution from the Port of Providence.
“By leaving Metacomet open and able to adapt to the rising Bay, other areas, areas along the shoreline that East Providence is committed to developing, will be better protected,” Spalding wrote.
Spalding said Metacomet should remain as a pubic golf course that can absorb water and buffer the damaging impacts of other built areas.
“The development plans already approved for the East Providence Waterfront and around Metacomet will likely exacerbate the heat island risk. But as former industrial areas and brown fields, these areas are not ‘green’ like Metacomet,” he wrote.
Because of technical difficulties, most online participants were prevented from speaking at the recent hearing. Therefore, an online-only hearing is scheduled for Aug. 26 at 6 p.m. Marshall Properties is also expected to present reports from traffic and wildlife experts. Ward 3 council member Nathan Cahoon also asked that Marshall Properties offer details on tax increment financing, or TIF subsidies.