By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
KINGSTON, R.I. — Rhode Island’s diminishing quantity of farmland recently took another hit — some would even call the loss a decisive blow.
Construction on the University of Rhode Island campus, at Flagg Road and Plains Road, has forever removed a significant portion of agricultural land from the state’s supply. The building of a 330-vehicle parking lot and a new road began about a month before Rhode Island voters are asked to approve $20 million in bond money (Question 6 on the Nov. 6 state ballot) for Narragansett Bay restoration, open space protection, state park improvements and, yes, farmland preservation.
This ironic twist wasn’t lost on Michael Sullivan, a professor of agronomy at the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences. “This is an exceptionally poor example of environmental advocacy,” the former director of the state Department of Environmental Management said. “The state will soon be asking voters to fund $4.5 million for farmland preservation while a land-grant university is paving over 15 acres.”
URI, once known as the State Agricultural School, was established as a land-grant institution (pdf) in the late 1880s. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 funded educational institutions by granting federally controlled land to states for them to develop or sell to raise money to establish and endow land-grant universities.
Digging up agricultural land to make way for more development, especially in a state that has lost 80 percent of its farmland since 1945 — only about 40,000 acres remain in production today — and is actively seeking to increase the amount of food it grows, has rubbed many, including Sullivan, the wrong way.
“We’re not just taking about some of the best topsoil in the region; we’re talking about some of the finest soil in the eastern United States,” Sullivan said. “The idea that we needed to ruin this land is fundamentally appalling. Where is the sound thinking? The change in hydrology isn’t reversible. The change we’re making to the land isn’t reversible.”
Sullivan blamed the university for relying heavily on short-term fiscal analysis rather than on sound environmental management.
This parking lot project was originally part of the 2000 University of Rhode Island Kingston Campus Master Plan, which called for "a seamless connection between Flagg Road and Plains Road.” Flagg Road already had been extended to add commuter parking, and the master plan recommended extending Flagg Road further south to meet Plains Road.
Some of the high-quality topsoil being removed from the Flagg Road and Plains Road construction area is being stored at URI’s Peckham Farm, according to Robert Weygand, the university’s vice president for administration and finance. The rest, he said, was being taken by the project’s contractor, the Narragansett Improvement Co., as part of the contract it signed with the university.
Weygand said the work was needed because of the lack of on-campus faculty, staff and student parking. He also took issue with the construction project being compared to ballot Question 6.
“The bond issue is different than what is happening here,” Weygand said. “The bond question is about private property.”
Weygand said the ongoing work includes a range of environmental improvements. He noted that the parking lot surface will be porous and feature a subsurface of crushed stone to better filter runoff. He said the project was incorporating drainage improvements, and making use of rain gardens and stormwater management bioswales. He also noted that the work would improve drainage from the turf fields to the north, which will reduce runoff into White Horn Brook.
Project detractors, however, aren’t impressed. They point to the 40 or so trees that were cut down, including a stand of white pine, and made into a small mountain of woodchips. They note the work of a few-years-old climate change study is gone, because the trees involved in the research project were dug up and removed. Other more established research plots were plowed over and will be moved further north on Flagg Road to land that was once leased to turf farmers.
These concerned people, many of whom are URI affiliated (few would speak with ecoRI News on the record), are angry that little notification or information was provided about the project before work began. They are upset that no real public hearing process was held, and note that some considerations, such as a parking garage, would have reduced the project’s footprint.
They are particularly worried that this work adds to the state’s growing amount of impervious surface. About 12 percent of Rhode Island is currently covered by asphalt, cement and roofing.
The new home to a URI parking lot and road is in the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed, and houses a sole-source aquifer, which Sullivan called the finest drinking water aquifer in the state. The land also is part of the well-protection area for recharge of the drinking water wells for the university and the village of Kingston.
“This entire project is inconsistent with the environmental advocacy that the university purports to be important,” Sullivan said. “We’re bulldozing as fast as we can, and giving away quality topsoil — all to build a high-speed curved road.”