Burrillville Land Trust Sets Sights On Sweet Property
March 24, 2023
BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — The Burrillville Land Trust has been fundraising for two years and in talks with the landowner for 10 about Sweet’s Hill, a 150 acre-parcel of both ecological and historical importance.
The trust has raised about $150,000 since 2020 but needs more than a million dollars more to buy the property and turn it into a public space.
Although the obstacles seem daunting, Burrillville faces similar challenges to those of other land trusts that spend years and millions of dollars to acquire and conserve land in Rhode Island.
Sweet’s Hill contains acres of forest and fields and abuts the state Department of Environmental Management’s Black Hut Management Area.
“It’s the place everybody sees when they drive into town,” land trust president Paul Roselli said. Roselli remembered going to town for the first time and thinking, as he saw a large crowd of dancing fireflies on the land from the road, that it was the epitome of rural Burrillville.
“Little did I realize that at the time that we moved up here in 1983 that the property was about to be parsed out into … house lots,” he said. “I thought they were protected. And they were not.”
Sweet’s Hill wasn’t turned into a housing development, or a solar installation, or any of the number of projects it has been considered for over the years. But the chance that it could be developed remains, according to property owner Rick St. Angelo.
“I always have someone interested in this property,” St. Angelo said. But so far, all the projects have fallen through.
About 10 years ago, Roselli approached St. Angelo and the two started talking about the possibility of land trust buying the property.
St. Angelo said he had previously wanted to sell the land to a developer but would now prefer the land trust buy it, if it can raise the money before someone else swoops in. He and Roselli have agreed upon a price but have not entered an official agreement.
“Part of me wants him to get there before [the developers] do,” St. Angelo said. “I would love for the Burrillville Land Trust to get it.”
Having a willing seller is a big hurdle to conservation.
More than the money, whether or not land acquisitions are completed comes down to people, South Kingstown Land Trust executive director Julia Landstreet said.
Most often when a project doesn’t work out, it’s because people have changed their minds about the sale of a piece of property. Sales fall through from “the seller end of it more than buyer end of it,” she said.
And even with a willing buyer, the process is still long. “It takes between 18 months and 18 years from initiation to closing,” Landstreet said.
A project that takes 18 months or a little less is probably a donated property, she said. “Eighteen months is a strong clip to make it all happen.”
The longest project she had seen started years before her tenure at the South Kingstown Land Trust, with a negotiation that was stretched out because a property owner died, passed it on to a spouse, who also later died, and then the second round of heirs debated about whether they wanted to conserve the property before ultimately deciding it’s what they wanted to do.
From there, a trust needs funding. Burrillville Land Trust needs to raise $2.2 million, which Roselli and the rest of the organization’s members have tried hard to do.
Edward Magro, development director for the Middletown-based Aquidneck Land Trust (ALT), said education is key to any successful fundraising plan.
“It’s not just about a piece of land you’re looking to preserve,” he said. “Why are you looking to preserve that particular piece of land? How does it impact the community in general, as opposed to just the abutting neighbors?”
Burrillville Land Trust members said the 150-acre property benefits the community in several ways and has tried to impart that message on the locals.
Walking the property with Roselli and Betty and Carlo Mencucci, they note both the natural and historical value of the land.
Sweet’s Hill was once a part of a farm called Indian Acres that was home to dairy cows and more than a thousand acres of land. The farm closed in the 1950s, but it was central to life in Burrillville before it shuttered.
Signs of its past still lie throughout the property. A Civil War veteran was laid to rest in a cemetery the Mencuccis have been slowly working to restore. Granite rocks still bear the markings of quarrymen.
Pam Cardin lived on Sweet’s Hill for most of her life and remembers when the fields were filled with diary cows. Her grandfather had farmed the land until the 1950s, and Cardin often followed him around to learn about how to take care of the animals and the business.
Her favorite place on the property was a little knoll, not too far for the house that once stood on the land, where a rock formation made a nature seat. “I loved that place,” she wrote.
“The Hill has always been a part of who I am and is HOME. No other place has ever been, nor ever will be HOME,” she wrote.
She saw the land change over time, after the barn was sold off and hasn’t been back since moving out of a farmhouse in 2008. “I prefer to remember as it once was,” she wrote.
Part of the land has returned to forest, and invasive species have spread throughout. But connected to Black Hut, the space could be a crucial corridor for recreation and nature. There are still trails that run through the property — some from ATV riders illegally crossing through — but others from the old oxen trails of the former farm.
Local Lego artist and avid hiker Andrew Grover took a group on a hike to the edge of the state lands to look over at Sweet’s Hill to get a few donations for the purchase. He said it was easy to get people to pitch in when they could look over at the old stone walls and the hemlock forest.
The trust has done a number of fundraisers to highlight the property’s attributes. They produced a promotional video, held meetings with free pizza to get the word out, and even benefitted from a hunky hikers calendar put together by Grover and his friends.
“Getting deals done is complicated,” said Kate Sayles, executive director of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council. “Often, it’s multiple partners working with multiple funding sources just to sort of cobble together deals.”
Funding sources range from individual donations to foundation contributions to state and federal grants, she said.
Sayles praised Burrillville Land Trust for its creativity — the organization has a golf tournament and a lottery ticket fundraiser coming up.
The largest cost for any of these projects is the land itself, and property in the smallest state is expensive, and only getting more so, according to Alex Chuman, ALT’s conservation director.
“The cost of the properties has gone up tremendously, the cost of land is really high,” he said. “That just means you have to raise more and more money for each piece of land.”
ALT is lucky, Chuman said, because in its part of the state, local foundations donate in fairly large amounts. ALT also takes advantage of other governmental funding resources, such as DEM’s Open Space Grant program. Often those are harder to obtain for smaller operations because they require matching funds.
There are also operational costs for land trusts, which vary depending on the size of staff or whether you have staff at all. (ALT has several paid staff members, while Burrillville is all volunteer.)
On top of that, closing costs, appraisals, and other monetary hurdles to complete a deal are expensive and often not covered by grant money.
“That’s something that we’ve just recently rolled out recognizing that that is like a limiting factor,” Sayles said.
The council has started a fund to help land trusts with those costs. Land trusts can apply for up to $3,000, Sayles said, and “we’re hoping eventually to have a really good sustained pot of funding that people can access.”
The purchase of the property, as complicated as it is, “that’s sort of the first step,” Sayles said, “because then forever the land trust needs to monitor and steward that property and make sure that it’s in good standing.”
For the Burrillville Land Trust, that would mean making sure the Sweet’s Hill property is safe and easy for members of the public to use. That would require some road work, a bit of trail creation, and a forestry plan.
Included in the $2.2 million fundraising goal is money that would help pay for those needs, according to Roselli.
“We know that it’s not going to be easy,” Roselli said, “but we do feel that we’ll be able to do it.”