Small town manners, big time growth move North Smithfield forward

Small town manners, big time growth move North Smithfield forward

NORTH SMITHFIELD - How can a small, historic mill town keep its rural character while continuing to grow and create an expanding tax base?

As towns across the country struggle to answer the question, they'd be wise to take note of North Smithfield in 2013, where construction was tempered with protection of open space and each plan for growth was complimented by acts of preservation and restoration.

In North Smithfield, business owners in quaint shopping plazas still greeted customers by name, while an expanding list of corporate stores on the other side of town attracted customers from near and far. Events like the Great Pumpkin Festival and Concerts on the Common kept residents in touch with their neighbors, while consumers enjoyed keeping their gas miles down with an expanding array of food and merchandise. High school students continued to rack up an impressive array of achievements in art, athletics and community service, even as town officials battled over district funding.

While it was clear in 2013 that not everyone sees eye to eye on issues such as zoning, environmental testing and school funding, the town of North Smithfield continues to meet its first goal: It's a nice place to live and visit.

A team with a plan

Town Council President John Flaherty had been in office for less than a month when he asked board members to help him outline the priorities for their two-year term. The resulting plan, released last January, included specific goals in economic development and infrastructure improvement, and has served as a guideline during 2013, as the Council pushed forward on objectives from charter review, to the development of a park and ride.

During a recent review of the document, Flaherty pointed out that half way through the term, roughly half of the Council's goals have been completed. The full 24-month strategic work plan can be viewed online.

Dowling Village gains speed

At the start of 2013, Dowling Village, a massive 137-acre development slated to include 12 retail stores and three stand-alone restaurants, had been in the making for around a decade, but only had two stores open: Walmart and CVS.

That all changed during 2013 starting with the opening of Lowe's Home Improvement in February, to be followed by Aldi, Denny's and, recently, Taco Bell.

Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton and Town Planner Robert Ericson announced in September that four new businesses had signed on: Planet Fitness, Firestone/Bridgestone, Aspen Dental and Sleepy's.

Construction continues now, along the roads built especially to serve Dowling Village customers. The developer is still seeking tenants for at least four lots and, according to Ericson, there were no new businesses to sign on during the final months of the year.

Kohl's department store also has plans to join the shopping plaza, but it is unclear when the shop will begin construction.

Historic milestones

North Smithfield institutions marked several historic milestones during 2013, and residents helped them celebrate at events throughout the year.

Slatersville Congregational Church turned 175 in 2013, a anniversary marked by services, family nights, community suppers and a special town-wide "Heritage Day" celebration. The event included food, entertainment, and a variety of activities full of historical information on the village.

Saint Antoine Residence on Mendon Road marked its centennial anniversary with events throughout the year ending the party with a festive Christmas Tree Jubilee in December. The nursing care facility holds Rhode Island nursing license #00001 and moved to North Smithfield from its original Woonsocket location in 1941.

Wright's Dairy Farm on Woonsocket Hill Road also looked back at 100 years of life on the farm in 2013, celebrating with a new book documenting the family's history. Wright's Dairy Farm: A History in Four Voices, by Sarah Merrill, is currently for sale in the Wright's Dairy Farm bakery shop.

A new conflict at Dowling

Valley Alliance for Smart Growth set the stage for a new dispute with Bucci Development at the start of 2013, requesting that the town issue a cease and desist order and halt all construction at Dowling Village over environmental concerns.

The conflict marks the latest chapter in a nearly decade-long struggle between Bucci and VASG, an organization that lobbied against the development and the addition of big box stores to North Smithfield's small town business community.

Both the town and an attorney representing Bucci Development denied VASG's complaint in February, saying there were no deficiencies at the site, and that the state Department of Environmental Management was responsible for handling any monitoring.

Caroly Shumway, chairwoman of VASG, argued that the responsibility to enforce regulations does lie with the town and filed an appeal with the town's Zoning Board. On Dec. 10, the board voted 2-2 to dismiss the appeal on the grounds that VASG had not been properly notified an abutter of the hearing.

The board still needs to weigh in on a second portion of the appeal related to the subdivision, and is scheduled to hold their next hearing on the matter on Jan. 14, 2014. According to Shumway, VASG is "still reviewing their options" for responding to the board's appeal.

Students show the Northmen Way

The class that developed "The Northmen Way," a new culture at the high school involving a system of shared values, continued to wow the town in May by organizing a new event called the N'Oscars to recognize outstanding achievements by both faculty and students. The idea, which was initiated by the school's student council and class officers, entails taking responsibility for the school and has resulted in several events showing appreciation for school staff.

The philosophy was cited last month during a visit by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in November as proof that the school has improved in the categories of "core values" and "school culture and leadership."

Looking at town buildings

The Town Council authorized creation of a Public Facilities Task Force in May, a board working to create a plan for usage and upkeep of the 16 properties owned by the town and the School Department. Members have hashed out several possible plans for a full reconfiguration of town buildings including options like creation of a National Park Headquarters in the building that currently serves as Town Hall and consolidating school and town administrative offices at a revamped Kendall Dean School.

In November, the town hired engineers from RGB to examine the options and determine an associated cost, a process which is still ongoing. The task force's goal is to get a bond request before the General Assembly by February in order to allow voters to make the final call during election in November 2014.

A funding fight

A dispute over 2013's School Department budget submission dominated headlines for several months this year after Budget Committee Chairman Michael Clifford and the other members of his volunteer board charged that the School Department was not reporting all of their revenue. Further, it violated Town Charter, the committee said, as the department had not provided prior year expenditures.

The Committee, tasked with evaluating requests from all town departments and making funding recommendations to the Town Council, also said that some line items in the district's budget were inflated and that members were having difficulty obtaining information from the School Department.

The problem began after the School Department submitted an initial budget request for $1.3 million more than they received in 2013, and budgeters complained that the submission was illegal because it exceeded the state-mandated 4 percent cap on annual increases. Communication between Clifford, and both Supt. Stephen Lindberg and Committee Chairman Robert Lafleur was strained and even heated throughout the budget process, leading to contentious debates at several public meetings. Other meetings were scheduled but attended by few, if any, members of the School Board. In June a principal from the auditing firm that works for the town said that after digging through financial reports, he had found errors in the School Department's 2012 audit.

The issue led the Town Council to level-fund the department in June, save $240,000 set aside for sports programs. Sports funding was moved to the "protected" municipal fund so the committee would have to look for other cost savings. The funds, however, were never transferred to the school district. Town administration claimed it was not needed as the department had eventually balanced their books without the cash.

The School Department approved this year's budget on Dec. 10, this time exceeding the prior year's funding by 15 percent, but labeling the document a "draft." Budgeters are expected to begin the process of examining requests again next month and Committee member George Hemond will serve as liaison between the two boards.

McGee resigns

Councilor Thomas McGee resigned from his position as vice president of the Town Council just days after the budget was passed. The two-term councilor, who was a top vote getter during the last election cycle, said he felt his skills were not being utilized, and that his opinions were being dismissed. McGee was one of the two minority votes on the decision regarding school funding.

McGee submitted a letter resigning from the leadership role in June, but has continued to serve on the board as a regular member. He has not stated if he plans to run again in 2014.

Town pursues land for open space

In September, the Town Council granted final approval to create 40 acres of open space for hiking trails behind Dowling Village. The plot, which was once slated for development of condominiums, is being purchased with the help of a $400,000 grant from the Department of Environmental Management. The remainder of the $925,000 purchase price is being pulled from a $3 million open space bond approved by voters in 2006. The plot surrounds Booth Pond, and is adjacent to 92 acres of similarly protected land in Woonsocket, creating a massive area of open space in an otherwise highly developed zone.

The DEM grant, acquired by North Smithfield Land Trust, a private nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and protect land in town, was originally set to expire on Oct. 31. Shumway, who also serves as president of the trust, told The Breeze last week that there have been several delays with finalizing the purchase, but the conservation easement was approved this week, progress she referred to as the "last step" before DEM could issue the funding. The town is expected to close on the parcel either before the end of the year or during the first weeks of January.