Camp Meehan Plan has Environmentalists Worried

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Lou Lariviere, co-chair of the North Providence Environment Commission, is thrilled the town was able to acquire the 15.5-acre Camp Meehan property, but he’s concerned the modestly publicized plan to build a parking lot and athletic field there will negatively impact vital open space in a town that has very little left.

“If they build another parking lot and add a new ball field, acres of land will be impacted and trees cut down,” Lariviere said. “We’d be adding more runoff into the Wenscott Reservoir and into an area that feeds the Moshassuck River.”

The North Providence Environment Commission supports much of Mayor Charles Lombardi’s proposed plan, such as hiking trails, a canoe/kayak launch, restoration of the beachfront and renovation of the former camp’s few existing buildings. The commission, however, believes there is no need to permanently damage a valuable urban forest for the sake of another ball field and a new parking lot.

Lombardi said the entire proposal to develop the area, including a multi-use athletic field for football, soccer, baseball and softball, and 20-25 parking spaces, would only impact about 7 percent of the property.

“We want to be very conscientious of all the organizations’ needs,” the mayor said. “It would be wonderful if it could remain untouched. That would be ideal, but we have other needs.”

Commission members argue that additional parking isn’t one of those needs. Barry Schiller said Camp Meehan already has more than ample parking. He pointed to the large lot at the entrance to the property, nearby parking at Gov. Notte Park and the existing paved area on the Lincoln side of Camp Meehan.

“We don’t need more parking spaces on the property,” said Schiller, as he walked with a reporter up the new graveled road that leads from the main parking lot to Camp Meehan’s waterfront perch on the Wenscott Reservoir. The walk was slightly uphill, and it took no more than a few minutes to reach the camp’s rundown main building that sits 50 feet from the reservoir.

The plan calls for a limited amount of new asphalt, according to Lombardi.

The town’s eight-member Environment Commission believes as few healthy trees as possible should be cut down, and they are displeased there has been minimal opportunities for the public to speak on the plan.

“This plan is already on the fast track,” Lariviere said. “It seems like it’s being turned into an athletic facility. Some of the town’s existing ball fields aren’t even being well maintained now. We already have plenty of athletic fields, but we don’t have much open space in its natural state.”

North Providence, a town with nearly 33,000 people, has 10 baseball fields that are used by Little League, Babe Ruth Baseball and the high-school baseball team, eight softball fields and three soccer fields, according to the town’s website.

Last year the town bought Camp Meehan for $500,000, to be paid in installments of $200,000, $150,000 and $150,000 during the next three years to Gateway Health, formerly Capital City Community Centers. The town received a $300,000 recreation grant from the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and was awarded $344,000 from the Champlin Foundations — $244,000 of which is earmarked for building renovations.

Since much of the $644,000 the town received in grant money is for more than passive use of the property, Lombardi said his administration must address the town’s need for more recreational areas.

“We have the least amount of open space left per capita than any community in Rhode Island,” Lombardi said. “We are limited by the grant requirements to what we can do. We need more athletic fields for the kids.”

Lombardi said the town’s sole football field takes an endless beating, and the town’s youth soccer program has 500 kids and is still growing. He said a multi-use athletic field at Camp Meehan would help lessen that recreational burden. He said this new field would not be lit.

The mayor envisions the soon-to-be renovated building that straddles Wenscott Reservoir to be an attractive place for retreats and small weddings. Lombardi said the money generated by renting this building would help pay for upkeep and make the property self-supportive.

Original plans for Camp Meehan, before the town was able to buy the property, included a 48-house development and an amusement park. The property is zoned open space, and a locked gate closes off access from the Lincoln side of the property.