Land Use

How Did Burrillville Become a Rural Rhode Island Enclave?

And can it stay that way?

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The 150-acre Sweet's Hill parcel in Burrillville is of ecological and historical importance. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Standing on top of Sweet’s Hill, looking over a northern Rhode Island forest, it’s easy to imagine there’s no one else around for miles and miles, with only the trees and the breeze to keep a visitor company.

The 150-acre parcel, a former dairy farm that the local land trust has been trying to buy for years to prevent it from being developed, stands as a symbol of the town’s rural character. Burrillville is one of the last places in Rhode Island with acres and acres of open space, but some in town worry that might not always be the case.

According to longtime residents, geography and policies have helped Burrillville avoid the development that has taken place in the state’s urban core, despite being a mere 20 miles away. But the town is approaching a crossroads where residents will have to decide how it develops, or doesn’t, from here.

Becoming rural Rhode Island

Burrillville is in the state’s northwest corner, bordered by Connecticut and Massachusetts, and was incorporated in 1806. The town was annexed from Glocester, and was named for James Burrill Jr., a state attorney general who helped establish the town.

“There were once wolves in Burrillville,” Horace Keach wrote in his 1856 history “Burrillville: As It Was, And As It Is.”

To trap the large canines, the first European settlers dug wolf pits, remnants of which Keech and others could still see half a century later in the Burrillville countryside. But by the mid-19th century, the wolves had disappeared as the people moved in.

When Keech was writing his book, mills had already popped up along the town’s waterways, including the Clear, Branch and Pascoag rivers, and building dams that blocked migratory fish, which had once been so abundant that there were times in spring it was hard to cross from one riverbank to the other without brushing against a fish.

a still pond
Mill Pond in the village of Harrisville. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

During that time, development was concentrated in the nine mill villages — Harrisville, Pascoag, Oakland, Mapleville, Glendale, Mohegan, Wallum Lake, Bridgeton, and Nasonville — whose names residents still use instead of the generic Burrillville when asked where they’re from. Each village had its own post office, train depot, and little stores. But away from the mills, it was mostly farms and pastures.

By the mid-20th century, the mills were shut down, and the train lines no longer operated. Burrillville didn’t really see the kind of post-World War II development that other Rhode Island communities experienced, according to Bill Eccleston, a North Providence resident who grew up in Burrillville and taught in town for years.

Having worked briefly in construction in the mid-1970s, he said it was then that he saw homes start to go up on dirt roads, many funded by farmer’s home loans, a federal program that offered mortgage and building loans to residents of rural areas.

In the 1980s and ’90s, the town started to think about how it wanted to develop while preserving its rural character that had survived the mill era, which led to a zoning strategy that allowed denser development around the historic mill villages and large lots required in areas that had always been farmland.

“It’s worked over time, beautifully,” Eccleston said.

Steve Rawson, vice president of the Town Council, was on the Conservation Commission when the zoning plan was crafted. He said it made sense because it helped the town use its resources more efficiently.

Pointing to the stable population (Burrillville has hovered around 16,000 residents since 2000, according to Census data), Rawson said the plan has been “relatively successful.”

‘Like it all went away’

By the time lifelong Burrillvillian Betty Menucci was born, the mills were being phased out, but the town’s open space was larger than it is today, and provided a free-range playground for the kids who lived around town.

Menucci, 70, remembers always being outside, running through the woods, playing with her brothers in backyards and fields.

Her husband, Carlo, grew up in nearby Smithfield, and lived a parallel life, riding his bicycle through both communities, carrying a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with him for when he’d find a good spot in the woods to settle down and draw the wildlife that he saw.

“Other guys could go out with a gun and shoot stuff; not me, I was out with a paper and pencil,” Carlo Menucci said.

The couple still live in the little postage stamp-sized log cabin they built in Glendale in the ’70s. They try to spend every nice day outside, biking, taking care of old graveyards, or helping out with the Burrillville Land Trust, of which they are both members.

a man and a woman look at a scrapbook
Carlos, left, and Betty Menucci look over old photos of Burrillville. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

The couple are known for their work clearing, restoring, and preserving gravestones, and are also involved with the Burrillville Historical & Preservation Society, of which Betty is president.

Although Burrillville remains more rural than some of its neighbors, it’s changed a lot since the Menuccis were growing up, they said.

“When I had a horse,” Betty recalled, “I bought it from Sherman Farm, and I could ride the whole length of Sherman Farm on the side of the road, like through the fields, with one field after another after another all the way up to Cherry Farm and then come back on dirt roads to my mother’s.”

In total it was a several-miles-long ride.

“Then one by one, somebody bought this field, somebody bought this field, somebody bought this field,” she said. “I can’t ride on Sherman Farm anymore. Like it all went away.”

Betty and Carlo said they aren’t against development altogether, but they would like to see the plans the town has put in place honored.

“They allowed denser construction in the villages, like in Oakland and Mapleville and whatnot, and leave the outskirts alone,” Carlo said. “What happened?”

He said he’s seen McMansions go up in town, taking up most of their lots and leaving little green space, and cluster developments preserve open space for private use.

“It’s a ‘not in my backyard’ kind of thing,” he said.

“Then there’s no more space for the animals,” said Betty, who is also a well-known beekeeper.

Does an affordable future conflict with a rural one?

Rawson, the Town Council vice president, also worries about what the town will look like in the future.

“In 10 years, you would not recognize this town as it is today,” he predicted. “I guarantee it.”

He’s concerned that state laws meant to help spur affordable housing that speed up the review process and take some of the decision-making power away from town boards will prevent the town from developing (or not) the way residents want.

““I’ve been fighting to keep our town as rural as possible for years,” Rawson said, and if it were up to him, he probably wouldn’t want any more development in the town in general, he added. But the town will obey the law, he said.

Burrillville’s affordable housing track record has been mostly positive. Usually, the town has met the state requirement that 10% of a municipality’s housing stock be considered affordable, but fell just under this year. Rawson said it was because of new housing development.

historic photo of a bridge
A historic photo of the Stone Arch Bridge in Harrisville. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

He said he’s trying to be proactive on the issue, coming up with plans for senior housing so that Burrillville can comply with the affordable housing minimum again.

Roberta Lacey, who sits on the Conservation Commission, believes cluster development could be key to striking a balance between keeping Burrillville rural — which she sees as a way to help wildlife — and help make the town a home to those who want to come here.

Cluster development allows a housing development to use less acreage to maximize green space, which is often put into an easement for recreational or/and conservation use.

Lacey, who moved to Burrillville from a housing development in Hartford, has become an environmental advocate with a unique perspective on the housing issue.

While she spoke to ecoRI News about the topic on the phone, she was going from grocery store to grocery store trying to find food for some baby rabbits she had rescued.

“I’ve gotten ridiculously involved,” she said, laughing at her sudden dive into environmental issues, some even as small as orphaned rabbits.

Lacey became an environmental advocate in earnest after the town fought against the construction of a power plant several years ago, although her love of nature was first sparked when she arrived in rural Burrillville as a 10-year-old.

Her parents were able to move from an affordable housing complex in Hartford to a home in Burrillville because of a farmer’s home loan, and the experience opened her eyes to a better life, she said. Living in “the projects” carried a stigma, something she believes a home in a cluster development might alleviate.

“It’s, you know, ‘Oh, it’s a project …’ you hear a lot of people saying derogatory things,” Lacey said. “I think cluster housing would serve families better. And it wouldn’t be such a hard burden on our community either.”

On top of using cluster development, Lacey said the town is also working on a wildlife action plan, which could help the town think about where development would have the least amount of impact on rare and endangered species.

She said she’s hopeful that affordable housing can happen while still protecting what makes Burrillville unique and important.

“We’re not trying to keep low-income [housing] out,” she said “There are not a lot of swaths of forest for the animals to forage. You know, there’s not a lot of those around the state anymore. So that’s what we’re fiercely trying to protect.”

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  1. Large-lot-size zoning is the only real way to preserve open land. 2- and 3-acre zoning (or more) is quite effective at preserving land and quality of life. Then, ignore the developer-owned lawmakers pushing “affordable” housing on towns. Or, do nothing and watch remaining open space become Warwick space.

  2. One great innovation in Burrillville that other towns would do well to emulate is that its Conservation Commission has begun the creation of the state’s first “Community Wildlife Conservation Plan” as recommended by Rhode Island’s current Wildlife Action Plan.

    The details for planning a CWCP are found in an appendix to the “2015 Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan.” And DEM has designated a liaison officer to aid communities in creating CWCP’s. Burrillville’s Conservation Commission is the first to step forward.

  3. The town needs to figure something out, Staghead drive is being over developed. They are putting houses sideways on lots that are only .21 acres. That’s a very small lot! Clearing all these trees, the wildlife has no where to go!

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