By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
A recent public forum held to discuss the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management's proposal to build a welcome center and office space in the Arcadia Management Area didn’t change a lot of minds, especially those opposed to the project.
The March 9 meeting at Richmond Elementary School provided DEM an opportunity to answer skeptics who wanted to know why the public was unaware of plans to build a structure on a popular tract of open space.
DEM director Janet Coit and Larry Mouradjian, associate director of DEM's Office of Natural Resources, said there was public notice, but in hindsight noted that more could have been done to engage stakeholders.
Most in the audience of some 150 simply wanted the 13,000-square-foot building relocated to another piece of state land. The grassy and wooded site on the edge of Browning Mill Pond is popular for hiking, picnicking and sledding.
“Too many people like that spot,” Richmond Town Council president Paul Michaud told ecoRI News after the meeting.
According to Michaud, DEM explained that the design and engineering took four years and that the plan is specific to the topography of the waterfront parcel. Simply shifting the plans to another site, DEM said, would likely involve starting the process over.
“They’d have to go back to the drawing board,” Michaud said.
Coit told ecoRI News that she couldn’t comment on the meeting — ecoRI News wasn't able to attend the public hearing — except to say she would be meeting with staff March 13 to discuss the agency's next steps.
“I think DEM had a little bit of egg on their face because they didn’t do their due diligence and they knew they didn’t do their due diligence,” Michaud said.
If built, the three-level structure would include a public welcome center, classroom facilities, a large outdoor patio, and offices for the Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Forest Management, state biologists and the state veterinarian. It includes an onsite septic system and 42 parking spaces.
DEM is promoting the Natural Resources & Visitors Center at Arcadia Management Area to draw visitors from beyond Richmond and Exeter to the state’s largest management area. The 16,000-acre park allows a range of activities, such as mountain biking, fishing, hunting, bird watching and kayaking.
DEM maintains that the site is a central location for its operations.
“This location is within 10 miles of the majority of DEM’s 51,000 acres of management lands, making it an ideal base of operation for staff working on environmental conservation,” according to DEM's project profile.
The center also aligns with the goals of Rhode Island's new Outdoor Recreation Council. Lead by First Gentleman Andy Moffit, the council aims to improve state parks and beaches, to attract more Rhode Islanders and tourists. A new $5.3 million beach pavilion at Lincoln Woods State Park is expected to open this year — a project that also received funding through the Rhode Island Capital Plan.
Lincoln Woods, however, is next to a busy highway and has existing buildings and parking lots.
Exeter resident Katrina Thornley is concerned the proposed Arcadia visitors center will bring traffic and people to a remote and idyllic spot.
“The whole point of going there is to be outside in nature, not in the classroom,” she said.
Thornley has been a leading opponent to the building. She launched an online petition that asks Gov. Gina Raimondo to halt the project. Raimondo hasn't responded to the petition. Thornley said she would shift her opposition to the Statehouse if DEM goes forward with the project.
Portions of the septic system and parking lot will be in Exeter, and town officials say the project requires local zoning approval. In February, Exeter issued a cease-and-desist order to halt construction.
DEM maintains that it has all of the permits to begin construction and can't move the location of the building or make major changes.
Exeter Town Council president Kevin McGovern isn't satisfied. “At this point we need to go back to our legal council and see what options we have,” he said.
Residents, he added, just want the project someplace else.
“Their real concern is that it’s a natural area; it’s so close to the pond and that road that it’s off of isn’t really able to handle the kind of traffic they are expecting," McGovern said.
DEM says the new parking lot is only slightly larger than the existing lot. The state agency expects an average of 50 visitors per week to the proposed facility.
The Sierra Club Rhode Island Chapter isn't taking a stance on the project, but supports Exeter’s demand that the plans undergo a local zoning review. The environmental advocacy group recommends delaying the project until additional public examination is completed. The Sierra Club also wants to know if the building includes renewable-energy and energy-efficiency features.
“Many questions need to be answered,” Sierra Club wrote in a prepared statement.