Proposed development of three homes in wetland area has neighbors worried about historic spring
Editor’s note (July 16, 2018): The petition by a builder to develop a 1-acre, wooded lot on Wilbur Road was approved by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management but denied by the Lincoln Zoning Board, 3-2.
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Video by JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff
LINCOLN, R.I. — At the corner of Cynthia and Wilbur roads, there’s an intersection to the past and future.
Traveling in the slow lane is a group of residents concerned about preserving the neighborhood’s heritage. In the fast lane, are homebuilders looking to keep up with demand. Southern New England is loaded with these forks in the road.
Where once farms, barns, fields, forest, wetlands and spring houses dotted much of the region’s landscape, there are now houses, condominiums, strip malls, big malls, big-box stores, pavement and concrete. There’s also more polluted stormwater runoff and growing development pressures — two intruders that have some residents of this once-rural Limerock neighborhood concerned about the potential impacts on a once-pristine spring, important wetlands, and the remnants, such as a milk house and a ram pump house, of a historic farm.
Lampercock Spring Farm off Wilbur Road was in the Phetteplace family for generations. It once was a 200-acre homestead. It has since been fragmented into individual lots. Homes now stand where once there were hayfields. A small Phetteplace family cemetery is now in the yard of a home on Longmeadow Road. An adjacent lot is being eyed for a new house.
John Margenot said he and other neighbors are concerned about the potential development of wetlands on a piece of property they thought would never be developed. Neighbors say the property stores and slows flood waters, and provides habitat for hawks, owls and other wildlife.
“We’re upset about the idea of building on a lot that’s not really buildable,” Margenot said. “We have real concerns about: will the stream be filled in? Will the flow be impacted? Will wetlands be altered? There’s an all-out assault on wetlands for development.”
The 1-acre parcel in question, to the left of what remains of the now 2.5-acre Phetteplace homestead, is a wooded lot traversed by a brook that flows into the The Nature Conservancy's nearby Aust Family Preserve. The property also lies within the headwaters of the Moshassuck River.
A group of eight or so concerned residents, including Margenot, who meet weekly to discuss the proposed developments, say the brook that runs through the neighborhood hadn’t run dry in more than four decades. That changed last month, when neighbors said they found the stream dry and the milk house filled in with sand.
Also called a spring house, the milk house has compartments that were once used to keep the farm’s milk, and sometimes watermelons, cool. The still-standing ram pump house drove water to the concrete trough at the farm’s cow barn.
Margenot, who has lived on nearby Lampercock Lane since 1993, said the spring house and stream always held water. The milk house storage areas are now filled with sand to a depth of about 2.5 feet.
Neighbors say the ivy-covered structure, with its hand-laid stone walls and metal roof, was sand-free in June. Since it didn’t rain that much from June to October, they don’t believe the sand/fill was delivered via stormwater runoff. They think someone may have intentionally filled the milk house’s side compartments to block the stream from flowing into the adjacent lot, where a developer wants to build a new home. The neighbors notified the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
“It was filled with sand and grass clippings,” Margenot said. “It looks like someone was trying to keep the water from flowing into the lower piece of land. It looks like it was deliberately filled. Both sides are filled perfectly, as if it’s been packed down.”
The developer has filed a wetlands permit application with DEM. In his filings with the state, the builder has claimed that the stream that runs through the property is intermittent. The Friends of the Moshassuck has filed a letter of opposition to the project with DEM.
Across Wilbur Road, on Cynthia Road, from the Phetteplace homestead and the vacant lot under consideration for development, two homes are being proposed for a cleared 2-acre site, where, Margenot said, a “tiny house” once stood. It was condemned and sat vacant for years, he said.
One of the proposed homes, a 2,652-square-foot Colonial with four bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms, is already on the market, for nearly $580,000.
John Houghton grew up in the neighborhood and lives down the street from the intersection where up to three new homes could be built. He, too, is concerned about the stream being disturbed and wetlands being altered. He’s also worried about the impact these development pressures could have on the remnants of a farm where his late father worked as a teenager for Morton Phetteplace — an experience Raymond Houghton later wrote about in a book titled Lime Rock Days: Life on the Farm, 1930’s.
In his book, the Rhode Island College philosophy professor wrote, “Off the road, in front of the house, rose the renowned Lampercock Spring, the most reliable pure water source in the entire area.”
The 215-page book notes that “the farm across the road from Mr. Phetteplace was the Wilbur place.”
“In the thirties, the Wilbur place was quite an efficient Rhode Island farm, milking about thirty head of mixed Holsteins and Jerseys,” Houghton wrote. He also noted that, “Mr. Phetteplace ran a herd of purebred Ayrshires.”
On milking days, Phetteplace’s farmhands would carry containers of fresh milk down to the spring house to cool. Once cooled, the milk was loaded onto a wagon and sold to local dairy companies.
In 1946, the state took possession of 138 acres of Phetteplace’s farm, with the idea of adding that land to the nearby airport. When that land wasn’t used for that purpose, Phetteplace tried to buy it back. His attempts were unsuccessful. That taken land now makes up the North Central Airport Industrial Park.
“I’m concerned about the spring being disturbed,” said John Houghton, who is the treasurer of the Blackstone Valley Historical Society. “It’s being squeezed between two planned developments.”