Metacomet Golf Club Developer Sells Itself as City’s Best Friend
August 3, 2020
EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The aspiring owner and developer of the Metacomet Golf Club is boosting its community engagement ahead of a key hearing and vote by the City Council. But many residents remain skeptical of the project.
Lianne Marshall, her brother John, and their team of engineers and attorneys are positioning themselves as protectors of the 138-acre site that is home to the financially troubled private golf club. Other, less-mindful developers, they contend, may try to build something more audacious than the commercial and residential venture Marshall Properties Inc. has proposed. With its current open-space zoning designation, the property, they warned, could be rebuilt as an amusement park, hospital, or school.
The city zoning table, however, shows the open-space designation allows for a number of additional uses, such as a farm, nursery, wood lot, wildlife refuge, park, playground, athletic fields, cemetery, and a day or overnight camp.
Pawtucket-based Marshall Properties is presenting itself as a friend of the community, pledging to listen to and possibly remedy the wishes of concerned residents. The Marshalls noted that they are lifelong residents and attended local schools.
“We take great pride in all that we have created,” Lianne Marshall said during a July 29 online conference call with the public.
The Marshalls explained how they recently walked the neighborhood surrounding Metacomet and heard residents fret about losing a tranquil green space and wildlife habitat.
“We are really looking for a way that we can find that we can all work together and get more positive reinforcement on this project,” Lianne Marshall said.
So far, the Marshalls have promised to leave 51.5 acres undeveloped, most of which will be open to public use, although 21 acres are underwater in Watchemoket Cove. An additional 8 acres of green space would be protected as a buffer within the commercial development.
Other plan designs include a 50-foot-wide strip of undeveloped land with a walking path along Fort and Fisher streets. Eight acres would be dedicated for community use along Fort Street. Existing trees would be protected along some streets and new curb cuts would be restricted on a portion of Fort Street. Marshall Properties also has pledged not to build a hotel on the property.
“It’s going to be even better for the existing wildlife that is on the property,” Lianne Marshall said.
Some abutters on the recent online meeting seemed to soften their opposition after learning about the latest changes. But other residents questioned the need for more commercial development along Veterans Memorial Parkway, where traffic has already increased because of large mixed-use developments such as Kettle Point.
Marshall Properties said a traffic study, stormwater study, and a review by a wildlife expert would go forward if the City Council approves the developer’s request to change the zoning designation from open space to mixed use at a special meeting originally scheduled for Aug. 6. Marshall Properties is also asking that the site fall under the oversight of the East Providence Waterfront Commission.
Marshall Properties doesn’t own the Metacomet property but holds an option to buy the golf course and will likely do so if conditions are granted by the city. A build-out of the property would take between five and 10 years. Once completed, taxes are estimated to deliver between $8 million and $10 million to the city annually.
Some residents are concerned about the overall size and scale of the proposed office buildings, condominiums, retailers, and restaurants. The added noise and congestion, they fear, will displace the calm and quiet of their community.
Detailed development plans have, so far, not been be presented to the public, but the Marshalls have promised to hold numerous hearings throughout the plan review process. Initial plans suggested 235,000 square feet of retail space, 760,000 square feet of residential apartments and townhouses, 150,000 square feet of office space, and 80,000 square feet of assisted-living units.
Bergin Street resident Philip Winslow said the loss of open space is felt over time as undeveloped land becomes more rare and valuable to communities.
“When you compare the beauty of big-box retail stores and cookie-cutter condos, I don’t think there is a comparison when you think about the beauty of historic green open space,” Winslow said.
Other residents wanted to know why the project was advancing so quickly, especially as the community struggles with a public-health crisis.
Riverside resident Betsy Dake, a state stormwater expert, questioned how the site would manage runoff without damaging nearby wetlands. A forthcoming stormwater mitigation plan, she was told, would likely include aboveground stormwater basins and swales.
John Torgan, state director of The Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island, told ecoRI News there were informal discussions in 2018 with the owners of Metacomet about protecting the property. That year, the environmental group protected the Agawam Hunt country club in Rumford from development using a conservation easement. But for anything similar to proceed with Metacomet there would need to be a stronger interest, and fundraising efforts, by the city and the new owners of the club to protect the property.
“If they want to do conservation, public access, and restoration, we’re ready to talk,” Torgan said.
City officials haven’t publicly discussed the development but their commitment to conservation seems unlikely, as officials pushed to have the neighborhood included in a federally designated Qualified Opportunity Zone. The use of the zones was created in President Trump’s 2017 economic stimulus package as an incentive to develop economically distressed neighborhoods.
One of Marshall Properties’ attorneys for the Metacomet proposal, William J. Conley Jr., is a state senator representing East Providence. He’s also chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance. The Democrat authored a resolution in 2018 that urged state and federal officials to include East Providence within an opportunity zone along the Blackstone River corridor.
Opponents of the project have questioned why the site received the designation when other less-financially-stable neighborhoods were excluded.
After one resident suggested the process for the designation was undemocratic and part of a backroom deal, Marshall Properties attorney Zachary Darrow denied it.
“There’s zero truth whatsoever that there’s been a backroom deal,” Darrow said. “There’s zero truth that there has been scheming for any period of time, let alone years. I will not be so bold as to challenge your passion, views, and positions, but I will not allow those frankly slanderous and untrue things to be said.”
A July 29 memorandum from William Fazioli, the city’s director of planning and economic development, explained that golf courses are exempt from Opportunity Zone financial incentives. Only after the zoning change can the property qualify for the tax benefits.
Fazioli stressed that the Marshall proposal came after the neighborhood, known as Tract 104, received the Opportunity Zone designation in May of 2018.
“I am hopeful that this memorandum dispels any inference that there was some concerted effort on the part of the city to designate Tract 104 as an Opportunity Zone simply for the purposes of promoting development of the Metacomet Golf Club for mixed use development. This is simply not true. The Opportunity Zone clearly predates the current events that are associated with the Marshall Properties redevelopment proposal,” Fazioli said.
Conley reiterated during the online meeting that Marshall Properties is going above and beyond to work with the community.
“No other project has ever made these kinds of commitments; any commitments at all before we even go through the review process,” Conley said.
The Aug. 6 City Council meeting has been postponed until Aug. 11 at 6 p.m. at Martin Middle School, 111 Brown St. An additional meeting will be scheduled if needed.
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