Sign of the Times: Development, Environment Clash in Warwick
August 1, 2022
WARWICK, R.I. — The Pawtuxet River Trail, which cuts through private property on Post Road, has been in use for decades, but the developers of a once-rejected trades contractor storage project are now “holding the trail as ransom” to get their project approved, at least according to a group of concerned residents.
Pawtuxet Green Revival believes the community is “being robbed of public and historical access” to the popular 2.3-mile loop trail that hugs the Pawtuxet River at the tip of the Pawtuxet Industrial Park. The group noted the active trail has long been maintained by the Boy Scouts and local volunteers, and should have been granted an easement years ago.
In the span of a week late last month, a wooden sign attached to a wood beam on Post Road marking the trail — handcrafted and hung by a neighbor a few years ago — was covered by the tenants of the property at 175 Post Road with a “Posted No Trespassing Keep Out” sign and then by a laminated notice, signed by Alba Properties, that read, in part, “We are trying to rectify & beautify this property and work with the neighborhood.” The wooden trail sign was then taken down and replaced with “Private Property No Trespassing” and “No Entry Cameras In Use” signs. By the end of last month, the wood beam stood naked.
In a July 29 letter to Mayor Frank Picozzi, Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick, addressed the no trespassing signs, writing this action “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 15.7-acre property was purchased by Needham, Mass.-based AZA Realty Trust Inc. in April 2019 for $450,000, according to a quitclaim deed. The joint tenants are listed as Artak Avagyan, manager of Alba Properties LLC in Smithfield and the owner of A-Star Oil LLC in Cranston, and Lee Beausoleil, owner of paving contractor Beausoleil & Sons Inc. of Cranston. Their revised master plan for a 68,750-square-foot storage facility that would have featured four buildings was “denied without prejudice” at the Planning Board’s June 8 meeting, by a vote of 6-0.
In a June 15 letter from the town’s planning director to the developers’ attorney, Nicholas Goodier of Providence-based Mancini Carter, Thomas Kravitz wrote the town will waive the resubmission fee for a revised master plan. The letter also recommended a few changes should Carter’s clients resubmit:
Consider scaling down the size of the project so it is out of wetland buffer and flood zone areas.
Update site plan and topography to reflect new material that has been spread throughout the site, and depict wetland features, buffer, and flood zone areas on the updated plan.
Change the applicant information to reflect true contact information.
Avagyan and Beausoleil, however, can’t submit a new plan for the property until they are in compliance with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
The state agency issued a notice of violation (NOV) in early May, claiming the owners violated Rhode Island’s Refuse Disposal Act and Rules, regulations for solid waste management facilities and organic waste management facilities, and the state’s Freshwater Wetlands Act.
Since the storage project for trades contractors was denied, Pawtuxet Green Revival has reached out to various community groups and elected officials to elicit support in its effort to stop “further reckless development” in a floodplain, near wetlands, and close to the Pawtuxet River.
The tip of the Pawtuxet Industrial Park, including 175 Post Road, floods during heavy rains. The area, which is in a Federal Emergency Management Agency-designated floodplain, often retains water even after normal rainfall. A case study published in April 2020 in the Journal of Flood Risk Management analyzes the March 2010 record-breaking flooding event in the Pawtuxet River watershed that featured a peak flow discharge of a 500-year storm event.
Pawtuxet Green Revival members — there are about a 100 and some are abutters to 175 Post Road — are concerned that the considerable amount of solid waste currently marring the property may be sucked into the river by floodwaters. They are also concerned the addition of more impervious surfaces on a property that borders the Pawtuxet River will cause more flooding and further stress a river advocates have spent the past 50 years remediating.
ecoRI News recently spoke with three members of the group about their concerns. They asked that their names not be used. They said the closing of the trail is a ploy to distract residents from the violations attached to the property and future plans to develop in a sensitive environmental area.
“Because those that don’t know, the minute they hear that the owners are going to ‘donate’ it, they’ll be like, ‘sure let them do what they want,’” one of the members said. “The mayor could even use this and say, ‘We got the owners to donate the trail,’ and no one focuses on the development in the wetland and floodplain anymore.”
The property has long served as an unofficial dump and an unpermitted storage area. The site is or has been littered with plastic pipes and tubing of different sizes, asphalt, drums, large plastic bins labeled “hazardous waste,” and barrels with stagnant yellow liquid in them.
A DEM inspection report dated Sept. 20, 2021 listed painted concrete, scrap lumber, appliances, Styrofoam, an asphalt adhesive or roofing materials, and a “fibrous insulative material” that totaled 502 cubic yards of solid waste.
Another DEM inspection, on May 8, 2020, found 30 cubic yards of solid waste, including plastic bags filled with mixed debris, mattresses, used tires, and windows.
Some of this solid waste is or was within 200 feet of wetlands and the Pawtuxet River.
In 1995, the property released hazardous materials into the environment, including total petroleum hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, and mercury, according to DEM. Four years later, the agency entered into a settlement agreement with the previous owners.
The current owners were required to submit a remedial action work plan to DEM.
DEM’s 14-page NOV required the removal of all unauthorized fill material, including gravel and other soil materials and stored boats, trucks, and oil tanks.
Six inches of soil must be excavated from portions of the property’s swamp and/or forested wetland areas, to ensure the proper hydrology is achieved at the completion of the restoration work. A minimum of 6 inches of “high-organic plantable soil” must then be applied throughout the impacted areas. This remediation work should match the elevations of any adjacent remaining undisturbed wetlands.
The NOV also required the planting of native trees and shrubs in the impacted wetland areas.
Some of the the orders outlined in the May 6 NOV were not completed within the 60-day requirement. Others are required to be completed by Sept. 30.
In June, DEM also sent Beausoleil and Avagyan a letter to inform them the property was out of compliance with several DEM regulations. The agency noted that as of June 17 Beausoleil & Sons Inc. was identified by the tax assessor’s office as the current owner of the property and, thus, the responsible party.
“The most recent Annual Compliance Report was due January 19, 2022. As of June 17, 2022, the Department has not received the required Annual Compliance Report and the Site is considered to be out-of-compliance with the ELUR [Environmental Land Usage Restriction] and the Remediation Regulations,” according to the letter.
Three years ago, DEM sent a similar letter of responsibility, dated July 23, 2019, to Beausoleil and Avagyan.
After AZA Realty Trust bought the property three years ago, DEM sent the owner an amended ELUR that noted the property contains soil and groundwater contaminated with hazardous materials and/or petroleum.
Attempts to reach the developers and their representative were unsuccessful.
Pawtuxet Green Revival members called the property’s level of neglect “extraordinary.”
“We are reasonable people and would love to see the site beautified and would have been open to supporting a functioning place of business, so long as there was zero negative impact on the environment,” according to one member of the group.
Calls to rezone property
In a July 11 letter to Kravitz, Rep. McNamara suggested the city should consider turning 175 Post Road into open space.
“I would like to respectfully request that the city of Warwick utilize open space bond funds to develop a passive recreational park on the 175 Post Road property that would provide citizens access to the Pawtuxet River Watershed area,” he wrote. “The Pawtuxet River has historically been utilized as a natural resource that has been widely accessible to the public.”
Members of Pawtuxet Green Revival support McNamara’s idea of rezoning the property from light industrial to open space. The group has gathered more than 300 signatures from neighbors in opposition to the development of the property. A draft ordinance to change the zoning was even written.
Rezoning the property, however, would most likely face legal problems and defeat, according to city officials. Kravitz told the group that changing the property’s zoning to open space at this time is “dicey” because the city “would be essentially taking all of the rights away from the existing property owner.”
While the group of concerned residents would like to see the city acquire the property, such an acquisition, which would be up to the City Council, would need to be done with an abundance of caution to avoid becoming a “responsible party” in DEM’s eyes, according to city officials.
“In other words, if there is contamination, the preference is to keep the liability associated therewith in the hands of the private sector,” Kravitz wrote in an email to the City Council’s community liaison.
Warwick’s comprehensive plan highlights the importance of growing the city’s non-residential tax base and the need to preserve open space. It’s a complicated dance, as Kravitz noted in an answer to a question emailed to him by a Pawtuxet Green Revival member asking how are the benefits of not building on a site compared with potential tax revenues — i.e., how is the cost/benefit analysis done?
Kravitz wrote the city would be wise to avoid letting specific land-use applications “devolve into larger, complex analyses that could become difficult to manage in terms of time, cost, politics, and appeals.”
He also noted that river and ocean flooding impacts continue to show the effects of climate change, and “some of what you say about select developed areas becoming obsolete will become a reality over time.”
There’s also the flip side of municipality management, according to Kravitz. He noted keeping the city out of lawsuits “while striving to balance both economic development initiatives and natural resource initiatives” is a challenge.
Pawtuxet Green Revival members want the property cleaned up, properly remediated, and if developed, done so in a manner that doesn’t exacerbate environmental damage.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Aug. 2, 2022.