By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
LINCOLN, R.I. — Getting a parking lot built in Rhode Island typically requires permits and review by state agencies and local officials. But in one case a large lot at Twin River Casino inexplicably appeared next to a wetland.
In February 2007, two officials from the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) discovered the 308-space parking lot during an inspection for a separate 9.9-acre parking expansion. The 2.27-acre lot was previously a grassy field on the outskirts of Twin River’s property. The project wasn't in any plans the DEM had seen, and it had a significant problem: runoff from the lot drained directly into a nearby wetland.
DEM suspended Twin River’s application for the larger parking lot project, designated for special event parking, until the matter was rectified. A mound of construction fill located within a restricted riverbank wetland area also was discovered during the site inspection.
Twin River complied by constructing a berm to divert the runoff and removed the fill pile. The lot remained, and the 9.9 acres of parking lot with 1,370 spots was built soon after.
DEM reports indicate that the 2.27-acre lot wasn't a critical habitat, but it did note that runoff from the lot channeled into a small pond and wetland area that feeds into Olney Pond, the popular recreation area with a public beach at nearby Lincoln Woods.
No application, however, was ever filed for the project with the town of Lincoln or any state agency. A Lincoln official explained that a parking lot of that size should have required a review by both the town and DEM.
The DEM oversees all parking lot permitting at the state-operated casino. “In the case of Twin River, actual harm to wetland areas was minimal and quickly resolved. A drainage design was developed that complied with the stormwater rules in effect at that time, and we were able to move on with review of the other new parking areas,” DEM spokeswoman Gail Mastrati wrote in an e-mail.
The DEM has reported no other instances of unauthorized construction at Twin River.
Twin River spokeswoman Patti Doyle described the matter as a nonstory, noting that the parking lot was built more than six years ago under different ownership, BLB Investors Inc.
The casino is now owned by Twin River Worldwide Holdings Inc. The names of the 140 investors in the ownership group was released by the state Department of Business Regualtion in October after a request by the Providence Journal. The consortium consists of banks, investment firms and hedge funds, including subsidiaries of Bank of America and Bain Capital.
Doyle said the builder or subcontractor would have had to secure approval for the parking lot permits. DEM regulations, however, require both the owner and developer to secure the permits.
Nevertheless, a paved parking lot with 300-plus spaces was built at one of the state’s most popular destinations, apparently without anyone’s approval.
In 2005, Twin River’s expansion project, including the new event parking lots, was issued a Certificate of Critical Economic Concern by the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (EDC). The designation accelerates the permitting process with an “expedited review” and “priority” handling and processing by state agencies and departments.
The DEM emphasized that the fast-track approval is not to blame for the parking lot issue. “Although such designation did not affect regulatory requirements whatsoever, DEM was obligated to work with applicants to obtain necessary approvals in as expeditious a manner as practicable,” Mastrati wrote.
Mastrati explained that a formal violation, which often include fines, wasn't issued because the infraction was rectified promptly. An informal process, she said, often get faster results. “Cooperation with a landowner/applicant nearly always works out better with better outcomes," she wrote.
Six years later, the lot provides storage for a hill of salt and sand. And like the other nearly 10 acres of impervious parking sits mostly empty, perhaps waiting for another expansion at the casino to bring in more patrons.