Neighbors Want Metacomet Protected from Future Development
September 28, 2020
EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Opponents of a proposed retail and residential makeover of the Metacomet Golf Club weren’t taking a victory lap after the developer pulled its original plan from consideration.
Instead, members of Keep Metacomet Green! held a roadside rally in front of the high school prior to a Sept. 25 special meeting of the City Council. Up until a few hours before the start of the meeting, the developer, Marshall Development LLC, was hoping to get a favorable vote from the council for its request to rezone the 138-acre golf course from open space to commercial and residential. The change to the city’s comprehensive plan would have opened the way for new shops, restaurants, condominiums, and office space. The plan also called for 30-plus acres of green space.
But Marshall Properties withdrew its zoning request hours before Friday evening’s meeting, blaming its decision on unsupportive neighbors.
“Despite great efforts to stimulate a productive discussion, there was very little constructive dialogue. Instead, rumor and misinformation ruled the day,” according to a press release from the Pawtucket-based developer.
Marshall Properties intends to go forward with buying the Veterans Memorial Parkway property from an ownership group led by golf pro Brad Faxon. The company’s “Plan B,” an unspecified project that adheres to the property’s current open-space zoning classification, will be the new focus. During several online neighborhood meetings, Marshall Properties suggested that it might build a school, hospital, or sportsmen’s club if it failed to secure the zoning change.
The Sept. 25 protest of green-shirted demonstrators went forward, said Heather Andrade, because the fight to preserve the land isn’t over.
“I say we save our shirts, and we save our signs, and we stay outside Metacomet like we have the last few months. And that’s where you will see us,” said Andrade, an organizer for Keep Metacomet Green.
Although Marshall Properties pulled its rezoning request, the City Council meeting went forward to allow public discourse with city officials about the property.
Residents implored the council to protect the property from future development. They opposed placing the property under the jurisdiction of the East Providence Waterfront Commission, a quasi-state agency. They warned of offering incentive-laden tax deals, such as tax increment financing. They asked that Marshall Properties be encouraged to consider redeveloping existing commercial sites in the city instead of the Metacomet property.
Elisa Thiebeault recalled hearing coyotes from her kitchen window, and stressed the need to preserve space for wildlife and families.
“You need to consider who you represent and what’s in their best interest,” Thiebeault told the council.
Lianne Marshall, co-owner of Marshall Properties, visited Thiebeault’s Mason Street home, but failed to convince her that increased traffic wouldn’t ruin the neighborhood.
Thiebeault told the council she was relieved when Marshall Properties withdrew its zoning request.
“But I’m a little bit leery. So, I just ask you all to please keep an open mind,” she said, “and to please keep it as open space for years to come.”
Several City Council members said they intended to vote against the rezoning request. But City Council president Robert Britto said he supported the zoning change because it allowed the city to impose restrictions on building heights and property setbacks.
“You have a voice. We as a council can put restrictions on that land. We can tell them what they can have and what they cannot have,” Britto said. But if the project adheres to the its current zoning designation, “it bypasses the council and we have zero say,” he added.
Residents and others council members backed the concept of changing permitted uses for the golf course to protect the property’s open space, or at least a chunk of it.
City solicitor Michael Marcello defended Britto’s argument by noting that the open-space designation allows for farming, a wildlife refuge, nursery, musical facility, public school, church, cemetery, cafe, marina, amusement park, yoga studio, country club, and an arts center.
Efforts to limit those uses, Marcello said, may lead to lawsuits against the city by the property owner.
Council member Anna M. Sousa said the property should remain true, undeveloped, open space much like the 130-acre Agawam Hunt sporting club. In 2018, about 80 acres of the Roger Williams Avenue property were protected through the purchase of a conservation easement by The Nature Conservancy.
Metacomet, Sousa said, should be preserved “not just as open space but a true undeveloped open space.”
City council member Nathan Cahoon said it’s not in the city’s best interest to rezone open space for commercial development. “Especially such a large lot of open space,” he said. “And without a comprehensive plan saying why it is in the best interest to do so.”
Cynthia Mendes, who is running unopposed for the state Senate seat she secured by upsetting incumbent William J. Conley Jr. for the Democratic nomination, said people buy homes near Metacomet for the “livability” and the “lovability” of the area.
“And with that goes accountability, trust of our council to do the right thing by the people and the land,” Mendes said.