Solar farms and bridgework lead news in 2018

Solar farms and bridgework lead news in 2018

North Smithfield residents Deborah Daigle Sullivan, Erin Scott and Elizabeth Jordan were among those who protested an effort by town councilors to boycott Nike products outside North Smithfield Middle School in September. (Breeze photos by Lauren Clem)

NORTH SMITHFIELD – The past year was one with plenty of activity for residents of North Smithfield, where a series of projects helped shape the town’s identity as a growing center for residential and commercial development in northern Rhode Island.

For town officials, a series of long-awaited kickoffs of municipal building projects served as cause for celebration and evidence of continued collaboration between the different branches of local government. State officials also celebrated the completion of local road and bridge projects, though residents quickly grew tired of road closures and lengthy detours around town.

Residents were less unanimous in their opinion of developers who eyed North Smithfield from other areas of the state. With two major projects currently making the rounds before the Planning Board, some saw potential tax revenue while others had concerns about maintaining the town’s rural character and the transparency of government processes. Transparency and accountability also came up after town councilors considered a boycott of Nike products, a controversial measure that put the town briefly in the national spotlight and had some residents questioning councilors’ commitment to serving their best interests.

Here are the highlights for a town whose physical landscape reflected many of the changes taking place in 2018.

Nike vote brings unintended consequences

The small town of North Smithfield found itself in the national spotlight in September when a resolution supported by a majority of council members garnered enormous backlash from residents, statewide activists and nationally online. Then-Council President John Beauregard proposed the resolution, which called on municipal and school departments to refrain from purchasing Nike products. The proposed boycott was in response to the company’s decision to sponsor Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who sparked a national debate in 2016 when he opted to protest racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem.

Beauregard, a former state police officer, told residents he introduced the resolution in response to derogatory comments by Kaepernick about members of law enforcement and that it was not intended to be a racial issue, but protesters at the Sept. 17 and Sept. 24 Town Council meetings saw otherwise. Statewide organizations such as the NAACP and ACLU condemned the measure as racist, while several residents, including members of the School Committee, told councilors it injected the town into national politics in a way that did not represent the views of residents. Councilors ultimately approved the measure by a 3-2 vote before reversing it in response to the backlash the following week.

Members of the town’s school community also expressed concern over the vote, with several students telling The Breeze they did not feel a majority of students and families agreed with the vote. Supt. Michael St. Jean also expressed concern over the unintended consequences for students amid backlash around the state, including calls to eject the town’s sports teams from the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.

While the national and state attention died down after the reversal, the lasting impact of the council’s actions on the views of town residents was evident in the November election results. First-term Beauregard did not win re-election, placing last out of six declared candidates, while Councilors Paul Zwolenski and Claire O’Hara, both of whom voted in favor of the boycott, placed fourth and fifth, respectively. Councilor Teresa Bartomioli, who did not vote for the boycott, placed second, winning the most votes of any incumbent seeking re-election. Douglas Osier Jr., a first-time candidate who placed third, publicly opposed the Nike vote, as did Megan Staples, a write-in candidate who declared her ultimately unsuccessful campaign in response to the issue.

At the Sept. 24 meeting and again following the election, Beauregard publicly apologized for what he called a “short-sighted yet far-reaching” decision that had consequences beyond the intended statement.

Big solar makes headway 
in North Smithfield

In a year when ever-larger solar farm proposals made headlines around the state, one of the largest proposals in Rhode Island was for an undeveloped 407-acre piece of land between Iron Mine Hill Road, Greenville Road and Route 146. Green Development, the same North Kingstown-based company that previously proposed a wind turbine near Dowling Village, presented plans to build the 40-megawatt AC solar array to the Planning Board in March. The following month, the company appeared before the Town Council to seek a zoning ordinance amendment, a measure that would allow the project to move forward without appearing before the Zoning Board.

While company representatives promise the project will generate between $6 and $8 million in tax benefits over 25 years, the proposal drew resistance from town residents and environmental groups who expressed concern with the clear cutting of approximately 180 acres of trees on the site. In a series of divisive hearings, opponents of the plan raised questions about water runoff, potential well contamination and a precedent of allowing developers to rewrite town ordinance for major projects, while supporters defended the project’s financial benefits and relatively low impact compared with other options for the site.

Town councilors ultimately approved the ordinance amendment, a major victory for the company, but the project still has several application stages to go before receiving final approval. In their latest appearance before the Planning Board, company representatives highlighted a list of accommodations intended to lessen the project’s environmental impact, including 90 acres of “pollinator habitat” that would attract bees, birds and small mammals. According to representatives, it would be the first time a solar project in Rhode Island has taken such steps to reduce its environmental impact. The company is due to appear before the Town Council again in 2019 to discuss the details of a tax agreement.

Meanwhile, an unrelated and far less controversial project is moving forward on the other side of town. Turning Point Energy, a nationwide company, has proposed a 6.22-megawatt solar farm on 40 acres of land near Holliston Sand Company in the area of Slatersville Reservoir. Residents and landowners have expressed support for the proposed location, which abuts a Superfund site and has been the subject of litigation between Holliston Sand Company and its neighbors. In November, the project received Zoning Board approval, and company representatives told The Breeze they hope to break ground in the spring pending the outcome of applications before the Planning Board.

Rankin Estates back 
on town’s radar

A controversial housing project that was previously the subject of a 14-year application process and lawsuit with the town was back in the spotlight after Narragansett Improvement, a Providence-based company, submitted a new plan for land off Route 7 in June.

The latest version of the plan proposes 126 single-family houses on approximately 270 acres of land, a slightly larger proposal than the ones rejected by the Planning Board in 2001 and again in 2005. In 2008, the company hired attorney Michael Kelly and filed suit against the town after it was discovered an archaeologist who presented influential testimony on possible Native American burial sites on the property had falsified his credentials. The lawsuit was settled in 2014 after several years of negotiations and efforts by residents to block the settlement.

The latest plan is classified as a “conservation development” and includes four soccer fields, three baseball fields and a playground for a total of 156 acres of open space. Opponents at the project’s early hearings before the Planning Board raised many of the same concerns that led to the its defeat in previous years. Residents questioned the company’s plans for blasting and the impact of a large number of families on nearby schools, while members of the North Smithfield Neighborhood Coalition, an organization that formed in response to a proposed settlement in 2009, accused the company of wanting to run a gravel mining operation under the guise of a housing project. Members of the Providence-based Mashapaug Nahaganset Tribe also gave their thoughts, claiming the land may contain ancestral burial sites despite the debunking of previous testimony.

Hearings on the proposed development will continue into 2019, prolonging a battle almost two decades in the making.

Bridges, bridges everywhereTown building projects 
break ground

While RIDOT focused on bridge projects, local officials turned to repairing or expanding the town’s municipal buildings, with several long-anticipated projects kicking off this year. In addition to replacing the roof on the current Town Hall, officials broke ground in October on a major renovation of the former Kendall Dean School building, a rundown town property slated to become the next Town Hall. The $3 million project is expected to take one year and will create space for all of the offices currently housed in Town Hall in Slatersville along with offices from the Municipal Annex and the School Finance Department. The project is financed by a $5.2 million construction bond approved by voters in 2014.

At North Smithfield Elementary School, officials unveiled plans for a four-classroom expansion expected to break ground in January. The new space will accommodate additional students coming from Halliwell Memorial Elementary School upon its decommissioning in June 2019. Halliwell has long been considered out of date and in need of repair, leading voters to approve a $4 million school building bond in 2014. According to the current plan, 4th-graders will attend NSES next fall, while 5th-graders will attend North Smithfield Middle School.

The projects were not without controversy. Residents questioned the long wait and project budgets, particularly for the Kendall Dean renovation, where a previous oversight committee, the Public Buildings Improvement Commission, was disbanded and replaced by the Municipal Buildings Review Task Force in early 2017 after initial project bids came in over budget. In the latest round of bids, proposals for the second half of the project, an anticipated renovation of the Municipal Annex, once again came in over budget. Task Force members opted to move forward with the Kendall Dean renovation while they placed the Municipal Annex portion on hold, a decision questioned by some residents.

Collaboration continues, but some seeking transparency

For the second year in a row, residents saw high levels of cooperation between their elected officials, including the Town Council, School Committee and Town Administrator Gary Ezovski, who ran for re-election unopposed but announced it will be his last. As the year drew to a close, members of all three branches highlighted that cooperation in their remarks at the inauguration, pointing out the results of those efforts in areas such as school and municipal building projects, infrastructure improvements and replacement of outdated town equipment. With limited turnover during the 2018 election, the attitude of collaboration appears poised to continue in the future.

Some residents leveled criticism at the outgoing Town Council, mainly in the areas of transparency and accountability in their handling of hot-button issues like the Nike boycott, the proposed 40-megawatt solar farm and ongoing municipal building projects. Transparency and accountability were central campaign issues for Douglas Osier Jr., a first-time candidate who won a seat on the council in November. Osier and Paul Vadenais replaced former Councilor Thomas McGee, who did not seek re-election, and former Council President John Beauregard, who did not win his re-election bid. Vadenais will serve as council president for the next two years.

The seven-member School Committee also saw limited turnover in the 2018 election, though neither Arthur Bassett nor Merredythe Nadeau, the two members up for re-election, chose to seek another term. Instead, Paul Jones, who was already serving as an appointed member, claimed one of the two elected seats, and William Connell, a former member, claimed the other. Francesca Johannis was re-appointed to one of the appointed seats after losing a bid for an elected seat, and Christine Charest, a former committee chair, was appointed to the other. Committee members James Lombardi, Jean Meo and Margaret Votta will continue to serve the remaining two years of their elected terms, with Lombardi continuing as chairman.

School increase at center 
of budget debate

Town boards did see one point of disagreement this year in the form of an emotional debate over a proposed school budget increase. In April, the School Department requested a 3.4 percent local budget increase to account for increasing enrollment, student services and the high cost of out-of-district tuition. Among the factors cited by department officials were the changing demographics of North Smithfield students, leading to a greater need for individualized support services, and the growing popularity of career and technical education programs that allowed students to request an expensive out-of-district placement.

The request met with opposition from the Budget Committee, who recommended only a 2 percent local increase, and some residents who questioned the town’s ability to take on the additional cost. After several weeks of debate, the Town Council reached a compromise between the two numbers. The council awarded the School Department a 3 percent local increase, partly by slashing funds that had been dedicated to school capital building projects and putting them instead toward the district’s operational costs. The fiscal year 2019 budget also included funds for civilian dispatchers, new equipment for first responders and a future concession stand and bathroom facility at the high school football fields.

Infrastructure advances

Town officials made strides in the area of infrastructure, with a sewer extension project on Parkview Drive and Edward Avenue started this year now nearing completion, according to Town Administrator Gary Ezovski. The project will extend service to approximately 27 properties along with a five-house subdivision proposed for the end of Edward Avenue.

Officials also plan to move forward with an extension of the Slatersville water system after voters approved a $1 million financing bond in November. The project, according to Ezovski, will be partly covered by $450,000 in principal loan forgiveness from the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank and will extend the water supply to homes in the area of Mechanic Street and Old Great Road whose wells have tested positive for low-level concentrations of chlorinated solvents. The issue, he said, has been ongoing for about 15 years and has made the well water undrinkable in at least three of the homes.

The Town Council also approved financing for $350,000 worth of road repaving, a project that will take place on several roads off Victory Highway in 2019, according to Ezovski. He noted that, unlike previous road paving projects, the work will be completed without a financing bond. Instead, it will be funded through the town’s regular budget, which in the past fiscal year saw a spending increase of 1.55 percent.

“While we’d like to see increased costs assumed by increased commercial development that doesn’t create a burden for the town, maintaining budgets that are close to the inflation rate or below it is something we can be proud of,” said Ezovski.

An end in sight for power 
plant hearings?

Across the border in Burrillville, the debate over Invenergy’s proposed gas and oil-burning power plant slogged into its fourth year. While a decision is not expected until mid-spring, 2018 brought several victories for the northern Rhode Island residents and officials who have fought the proposal since 2015. In September, ISO New England, the nonprofit responsible for overseeing the regional energy market, requested permission to cancel a capacity supply obligation contract with Invenergy that had been seen as an essential piece of the company’s argument that it would bring needed energy to the region. In November, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission confirmed that decision, giving opponents hope the EFSB would look favorably on their argument that the plant is unnecessary and would cause environmental harm.

The company was dealt another blow in October when the EFSB opted to reject a two-year-old advisory opinion supporting the plant from the State Public Utilities Commission. The opinion was partly based on the contract with ISO New England, leading opponents to argue it was out of date. Together, the two developments were seen as significant victories by those who have fought the plant’s construction from the beginning.

“I think the board made a commonsense decision here, and it’s basically what we’ve been trying to convey to the EFSB for a number of years now – that the project is not needed in Rhode Island,” Burrillville Town Manager Michael Wood said on the board’s decision to reject the advisory opinion.

The company, meanwhile, maintained the need for the proposed plant is only growing and told The Breeze they will continue with the application as planned.

Changes on the horizon

While the impact has yet to be seen, voters approved several major changes to the town charter during the 2018 election, including some to the positions of town administrator and School Committee that will take effect in 2020. As of Dec. 1, 2020, the town administrator will serve for a period of four years instead of two, while the School Committee will consist of five rather than seven members, with the two appointed positions removed. All elected officials will be subject to eight-year consecutive term limits that will not apply retroactively.

Voters also approved changes to establish guidelines for recall of elected officials, raise the debt limit without referendum and create an Asset Management Commission effective immediately, but rejected a major proposal to switch the town administrator’s position from an elected to an appointed seat. Voters had previously rejected a similar proposal in 2010.

Residents also saw changes in the town’s anticipated direction with the approval of a new comprehensive plan. The new plan, the result of several years of drafts and public feedback, seeks to increase the town’s commercial tax base through proposed zoning changes that would allow for business expansion along the Route 146 corridor. These areas include Branch Village, specifically the business park off Great Road, and Whortleberry Hill, an area currently under consideration for a proposed solar farm. The plan also targets areas for open space, seeks to increase affordable housing and promotes medium to high density housing in areas of town where water and sewer lines already exist. Town councilors plan to hold a separate hearing on the zoning changes in 2019.

Former Town Council President John Beauregard, second from left, a former state police officer, said he introduced the Nike measure in response to derogatory comments about police by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The Stone Arch Bridge, one of several bridges under construction in North Smithfield this year, opened last Friday. The town’s new fire engine was among the first vehicles to cross the bridge, which had been closed since January. Additional work on the bridge will continue in the spring.