Developers Withdraw Proposal for Storage Facility on Pawtuxet River Site
May 1, 2023
WARWICK, R.I. — The developers of a controversial proposal to build a contractor storage facility on a Post Road property abutting the Pawtuxet River have withdrawn their project.
On April 21, Nick Goodier, an attorney representing the developers, wrote to planning director Tom Kravitz, “… at this time, however, due to various circumstances and factors, the project is not being pursued by my Clients.”
The property’s owners and project developers Artak Avagyan and Lee Beausoleil received conditional approval from the Planning Board in February after a contentious public comment hearing to build a pair of storage unit buildings totaling 65,000 square feet and associated parking infrastructure.
The decision included a recommendation from the Planning Department to place a conservation easement along the popular riverfront trail that would have linked two already-existing conservation areas that bookend the property.
Avagyan told the board at the February meeting that including the conservation easement was a deal-breaker. “We won’t give up the land for conservation,” he said.
But hikers seeking to use the trail will remain disappointed; residents notified ecoRI News over the weekend that a small bridge had been removed not too far from the Post Road side of the trail and a new barricade installed in its place.
Goodier did not respond to inquiries about his clients’ withdrawal of the project or their future plans for the property.
Pawtuxet Green Revival (PGR), a community group based out of nearby Pawtuxet Village that opposed the project, said it submitted an appeal to the Zoning Board of Review and were awaiting a hearing date. The group opposed any development of the site, expressing concern to state environmental officials and city leaders that development of the project would cause further pollution of the Pawtuxet River.
“Together our community stood up for the protection of the Pawtuxet River,” PGR administrator Jeff Sutton wrote in a prepared statement. “We believe that industrial uses and hazardous materials don’t belong within wetlands, on a floodplain and along the banks of a river that is recovering from decades of pollution.”
The Warwick Beacon reported in March that both sides involved in the proposed development were appealing the Planning Board’s February decision. A hearing date had yet to be scheduled at the time the owners withdrew their project from consideration.
At the center of the controversy and the year-long tug-of-war between PGR and the property owners is the Pawtuxet River trail. A 2.3-mile loop that hugs the Pawtuxet River at the tip of the Pawtuxet Industrial Park, it ultimately cuts through privately owned property at 175 Post Road, the site of the proposed storage facilities.
The trail has been actively used by local residents for decades and has long been maintained by the Boy Scouts and groups of local volunteers, despite lacking a conservation easement that should have been awarded years ago, according to PGR.
ecoRI News reported last summer that a “no trespassing sign” had been erected in late July. In a July 29 letter to Mayor Frank Picozzi, Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick, said the new signage “eliminates the last public access point to the Pawtuxet River Basin in the city of Warwick. This is a historic trail that has been utilized by citizens for over 5 decades.”
The privately held, 15.7-acre property that the trail cuts through was bought in April 2019 by Needham, Mass.-based AZA Trust Realty Inc. for $450,000, according to the quitclaim deed. The joint tenants listed Avagyan and Beausoleil, who own a property company and a heating oil company and paving contractor business, respectively.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management issued a notice of violation last May, claiming the owners violated the state’s Refuse Disposal Act and Rules, regulations for solid waste management and organic waste management facilities, and the state’s Freshwater Wetlands Act.
The site has long been a dumping ground for hazardous materials, littered with plastic pipes and tubing, asphalt drums, and plastic bids labeled “hazardous waste.” A September 2021 DEM inspection report of the property listed painted concrete, scrap lumber, appliances, Styrofoam, asphalt adhesive, and roofing materials that totaled 502 cubic yards of solid waste.
A May 2020 inspection report found 30 cubic yards of solid waste, including plastic bags filled with mixed debris, abandoned mattresses, used tires, and windows. The property contains an environmental land-use restriction on its deed. The site also contained various hazardous materials left onsite by the former Hammel-Dahl Factory.
The tip of the industrial park, including 175 Post Road, floods during heavy rains, and the area is squarely located within a Federal Emergency Management Agency-designated floodplain.
In January, McNamara introduced a package of bills aimed at increasing river protections around the state and increasing public access to rivers. H5087 would require DEM to develop a plan for flooding on the Pawtuxet River, specifically at the site of the former Ciba-Geigy plant, a similarly toxic site not too far up the river from 175 Post Road.
A second bill (H5088), would amend the definition of solid waste to include PVC pipe left abandoned or discarded on the ground or otherwise not stored in a covered facility. The final bill (H5116) would permit the DEM director to recognize and identify public rights-of-way to the shoreline and water access over land owned by a private party, a function that is currently handled only by the Coastal Resources Management Council.
The bills have received committee hearings and were held for further study.
Meanwhile, PGR has pledged it will continue advocating for the site’s remediation. On Feb 2, the group submitted a complaint to DEM, alleging the current cap on the property was cracked and insufficient for containing the chemicals and other hazardous materials and preventing them from leaking into the Pawtuxet River. The group noted DEM has not announced an investigation or enforcement action against the property.
The trail still remains closed.
Improving the quality of life has no price tag.
How can governments further incentivize recreational projects and conservation? This trail gives pleasure and respite to local residents and, if publicized, to hundreds of others outside the area. Does the city own vacant land it could swap for preservation of this one to create a park/trail? Probably an “pie-in-the-sky” suggestion. Opportunities come and go so quickly.
This project shows why stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise and demanding all of the pie or non of it has adverse consequences for all parties.