CUMBERLAND – To anyone paying attention in Cumberland this past year, it was clear that one of the biggest storylines outside of COVID and its impacts was the town taking action on projects that had long been stagnant.
Mayor Jeff Mutter brought a no-nonsense approach to matters, steadily picking off one project at a time. From Diamond Hill Park to the Monastery, newly repaved roads to new water lines and wells, upgrades were seen all over town, and though there is still plenty to improve upon, including traffic conditions and issues related to development, the town is positioned to build on the progress of 2021 in 2022.
The Town Council also jumped in to address common sense changes impacting local life, including legalizing fire pits and relaxing rules on in-law apartments. The town, at Mutter’s initiative, also started down the path toward creating a power outage database for use in defining the issues that lead to the town’s repeated outages.
Not every decision had as much widespread goodwill involved, such as when the council decided against allowing chickens in a Cumberland Hill neighborhood.
Speaking of COVID, Cumberland has had 302 total hospitalizations and 88 total deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to the state’s database, putting it on the low end in the state at 254 deaths per 100,000 people.
Lincoln, by comparison, was also on the lower end, but has a death rate per 100,000 of 351, with 76 total deaths and 223 total hospitalizations.
The vaccine effort in Cumberland rolled out for older residents in February, accelerating from there as Cumberland EMS led the way in bringing vaccines door to door in February and running clinics for residents all year, winning widespread praise for their consistently great work.
Cumberland has had 72 percent of eligible people get the two-shot vaccine schedule, slightly under Lincoln’s number of 74 percent.
The resurgent pandemic is creating a sense of unease headed into 2022, but leaders say the vaccine effort gave Cumberland a strong foundation going forward.
Town residents were on top of their game this year when it came to helping their community and neighbors, from running food drives for charitable organizations to senior lunch delivery workers faithfully doing their work every day.
Feel-good stories were everywhere, from the couple thanking first responders after the shocking birth of their child in the shower, to a local church furnishing homes for Afghan refugees, to Sam Sheets taking it upon himself to build a new sign for the Lippitt Estate neighborhood.
There were also plenty of quirky headlines, like when the community helped a local horse owner find her horse, Pablo, after he’d run away.
Beyond the COVID response and life getting reasonably back to normal this year, here are some of our other top storylines in Cumberland:
• Canning Street project has far-reaching implications
July is typically a slow news month, and some may have initially seen a Breeze story about a proposed home on a 90-percent wetlands lot on Canning Street as fitting right into that mold, but the events of the months that followed would show that this story had legs.
Tony Silva, chief of staff to Gov. Dan McKee, eventually resigned after the fallout from his project, including allegations that he tried to pressure town officials to approve the project, and is now under state investigation as well on whether he tried to use his influence to skirt environmental restrictions after the town repeatedly rejected the project that was vehemently opposed by neighbors.
Largely motivated by that situation, the town has now brought the Conservation Commission under the oversight of the Planning Department, and its members will be asked to directly advise on any projects related to environmental and land concerns, as well as the town’s new re-forestry initiative.
The Silva family ended up announcing that they would donate the wetlands parcel to the town.
Town officials are generally trying to keep developers more accountable, including Jim McKee with his Hidden Meadow Estates.
Accountability on projects will be an ongoing theme in 2022, as officials look to exercise great caution with approvals for the new Blackstone Valley Prep High School expansion and the latest development from Jim McKee.
• Parks, facilities upgraded
There was so much talk over the years about Diamond Hill Park being upgraded that some had lost hope that it would ever happen, but 2021 was the year of transformative action there. A new athletic field was installed and another is being put in, significant work on a new reflection pond was done, and new restrooms were installed, much of the work done using grant funds won through the efforts of grant writer Lisa Andoscia.
Two additional grants could pay for lighting and sound upgrades on the stage overlooking the pond and improvements to the bike track in the park, and a newly formed building committee is now planning the replacement of the park’s ski lodge.
Upgrades also continued across town, with further work at the Cumberland Senior Center, and after hearing complaints about the condition of Valley Falls Heritage Park, Mayor Mutter also agreed to take action there, including clearing out invasive trees.
The opening of Epheta Park late in the year was another positive on the recreation space front.
• Town takes step to calm traffic; sidewalks next?
The Town Council, at Councilor Tim Magill’s request, is now taking steps to streamline the town’s traffic-calming process to make it more efficient, but there were plenty of strides taken by the Traffic Management Group and police this year on the calming effort, including stronger enforcement of both speeding and infractions at crosswalks, among others. A younger-trending Police Department with officers focused on good police work used a number of different tools at their disposal, including a full fleet of moving radar, to send the message that speeding won’t be tolerated.
Heading into the New Year, Mayor Jeff Mutter is focused on creating a plan for how the town might invest in new sidewalks, increasing walkability and enhancing safety in town.
Additional measures will likely be taken in the year ahead to further enhance pedestrian safety in crosswalks after several changes were made this year, including new flashing lights near Davenport’s Restaurant on Mendon Road.
In keeping with Mutter’s ongoing effort to fix some of the inconsistencies in local code and laws, the town began replacing its illegal 15 mph speed signs with 25 mph signs. As it turns out, many of the town’s speeding complaints have come under the assumption that speed limits are 15 mph, but the speed limits on those signs were never enforceable.
• Residents, businesses return to new normal
The rollout of vaccines helped the town and its businesses slowly reopen, with revived events including Fourth of July festivities and the 30th anniversary CumberlandFest.
Local pub owners were happy to see some restrictions starting to lift in February, and in May, town officials voted to allow 100 percent of a restaurant’s capacity outdoors, helping businesses recover some of their lost earnings during the warmer months. Shortly after, state officials celebrated reopening of restaurants at the new and improved Angelo’s.
The impacts of the pandemic helped inspire a number of new business openings, including Fresh Studio, Rokn’ Art, and the Modern Farmhouse, among others.
• Ann & Hope project inches forward
As 2021 draws to a close, the sale of the old Ann & Hope Mill off Broad Street is becoming official, as developer David Corsetti and Premier Development prepare to turn the property long owned by the Chase family into a modern residential complex.
Premier Development is preparing to convert the vacant mill that previously housed the famous department store into more than 200 new residential units and some commercial spaces, including a restaurant.
No official plan has been submitted to the town as of yet, but officials are planning to consider an entire package in one meeting.
Ann & Hope closed its outlet stores in the summer of 2020, weeks after a representative said there were no plans to shut down.
Premier Development is the company behind a number of mill redevelopments in the area.
• Broad Street redo causes temporary pain
The $18 million Broad Street reconstruction project through Cumberland, Central Falls and Pawtucket inconvenienced residents and business owners this year, but the long-term benefit of the project in terms of growth, drainage and quality of life is expected to be enormous.
The long-awaited project will see more trees than originally planned thanks to the town covering that part of the project, and the drainage fixes are expected to make the area a better place to live and do business.
Traffic will remain a concern once the project is completed, which is why officials are keeping a close eye on a proposal to expand the Blackstone Valley Prep High School off Broad Street.
• Water infrastructure upgraded
The town brought its long-awaited new wells at Franklin Farm online this year, and also purchased the Schofield Farm property for future additional wells, two pieces of long-range planning for sustainable drinking water infrastructure.
The town is also continuing with upgrades to its underground pipe system, completing the second phase of the Diamond Hill Road water line project this year, all part of a goal of having pipes that don’t hold onto debris so easily and to avoid the frequent water line breaks that have plagued residents in recent years with pipes first installed in the 1950s and 1960s.
By officials’ estimates, some two-thirds of piping is still more than 50 years old, meaning there’s still a lot of work to be done and investments to be made.
On the Schofield Farm acquisition, The Breeze took a deep dive for a story in early February seeking to answer the question of why the town didn’t get an earlier chance to purchase the property, despite it being known for a long time that officials desired to have it for water use, even as the owner sold it to someone else for $275,000 and he in turn flipped it in a sale to the town for $600,000 a short time later.
Officials at the time acknowledged the strangeness of the situation.
“It’s a big loose end that makes no sense at all,” said Mayor Jeff Mutter then. “It never added up to me.”
But the bottom line, said he and others, is that the town now has the property it needs to deliver plentiful supply and lower costs for water in the future.
Other top stories in 2021 included:
• The Lusitana Club celebrated its 100th anniversary.
• Plans were submitted to turn the former St. Patrick’s Church on Broad Street into new affordable housing.
• The Historic District Commission worked with residents to preserve a number of local properties.
• Investments were made in a future 62-acre park on a contaminated site that’s being cleaned up along the Blackstone River.
• The Cumberland Fire District further climbed back from its financial troubles.
• The town piloted a new community resource center, with plans for a more permanent facility in the future.
• The town and state addressed numerous local flooding issues, including near the Diamond Hill roundabouts, on Sneech Pond Road, and early steps to finally address flooding on Old Reservoir Road.