By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
The towns of Exeter and Richmond have joined the opposition to a planned welcome center and office building in Rhode Island’s largest protected forest and recreation area.
The Richmond Town Council voted Feb. 22 to have the town attorney investigate options to oppose the $7.2 million Arcadia Natural Resources & Visitors Center that would serve the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
Richmond Town Council president Paul Michaud said the 13,000-square-foot building sited next to Browning Mill Pond in the Arcadia Management Area would displace a site popular for picnicking and sledding.
“The spot they choose is one of the most ideal spots for folks in my town,” Michaud said. “I just think they need to find a new spot for that project.”
Michaud recommended that DEM consider building on state-owned land in town or in nearby communities where there is less use by the public.
The recent vote by the Richmond Town Council comes days after Exeter issued a stop-work order for the project. Exeter officials said the project, which touches both communities, violates local zoning rules and requires several permits, in addition to an administrative review.
The action by the two towns comes after an online petition received more than 870 signatures in opposition to the project. Exeter resident Katrina Thornley started the petition.
“The creation of the building will ultimately change the use of the area and will detract from the beauty of the town as a whole,” Thornley wrote in the appeal.
Signers of the petition suggested that the building is better suited for a vacant shopping center and other sites of former businesses in Richmond.
DEM blamed itself for the pushback by failing to reach out to the public about its intention to develop the land.
“I think the crux of the issue is that people are surprised about the project,” said Larry Mouradjian, associate director of DEM's Office of Natural Resources.
Mouradjian said the structure is visually appealing and complements the wooded setting around the pond. He noted that the site isn't located in pristine wilderness, but rather in an area that was used publicly as a state park before it was added to the Arcadia Management Area.
He said the project has been planned for nearly four years. Planning started after the Office of Fish and Wildlife was forced to move from the government center building in Wakefield. The office was scattered to small, outdated cabins in the Great Swamp Management Area in South Kingstown and to DEM’s Providence headquarters. None of these sites were worthy of rehabilitating, according to Mouradjian.
DEM choose the Browning Mill Pond site because of its proximity to most of DEM’s parks and fieldwork in rural Washington County.
Mouradjian said the building is a fitting structure to complement the range of activities in the 14,000-acre preserve, such as hunting, fishing, hiking, kayaking, biking and bird watching.
Several design features are intended to minimize the project’s environmental impact, such as wastewater-treatment and stormwater-runoff systems. It is set back 145 feet from the Browning Mill Pond to reduce harming the water body. The structure was designed so that the bottom floor is below ground level and thus only the top level is visible from the road.
The parking lot has 42 spaces and only 15 to 30 vehicles are expected to use the lot at one time.
“We’ve been careful about the design of the building given where it is,” Mouradjian said.
In addition to serving as a welcome center, the building will offer public restrooms and space for conference meetings and education programs. It also includes a large, public outdoor terrace. The building will have laboratory space for state biologists. It will house the state veterinarian, the Division of Fish and Wildlife and the Division of Forest Environment.
The full $7.2 million cost of the project has been funded in past DEM budgets.
One problem opponents face is that the project has already been approved and received its permits. Construction is expected to begin next month and be finished by March 2018.
It’s not clear if and how the project can be delayed. In its cease-and-desist order, Exeter cites a 1982 state Supreme Court case that says the town has standing to require local permitting on a state project. In the court case, residents along Blackstone Boulevard in Providence opposed expansion of a state rehabilitation facility on the city's East Side.
DEM has promised to hold a public hearing, but no date has been announced.
Update March 2 at 3:49 p.m.: A community meeting has been scheduled for March 9 at 6 p.m. in the Richmond Elementary School cafeteria, 190 Kingstown Road in Wyoming.