By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s controversial plan to build a visitors center near the banks of Browining Mill Pond remains on hold as the case slowly makes it way through the courts.
The case is currently on appeal in Rhode Island Supreme Court. On May 17, the court ordered that the separate appeals by the towns of Exeter and Richmond be consolidated, just as they were in Superior Court, according to court officials.
“Preliminary statements of the case have been filed, and the case is ordered to full written briefs in the next 40 days,” Craig Berke, director of community outreach and public relations for the Rhode Island Judiciary, wrote in a May 29 e-mail.
He noted that oral arguments won’t be scheduled until this fall, at the earliest.
DEM’s proposed welcome center and office building in Rhode Island’s largest protected forest and recreation area was quickly met with opposition when it was quietly announced in 2017.
The Richmond Town Council voted in February of that year to have the town attorney investigate options to oppose the $7.2 million Arcadia Natural Resources & Visitors Center.
The vote by the Richmond Town Council came days after Exeter issued a stop-work order against the DEM project. Exeter officials said the project, which touches both communities, violates local zoning rules and requires several permits.
In its cease-and-desist order, Exeter cited a 1982 state Supreme Court case that says the town has standing to require local permitting on a state project. In that court case, residents along Blackstone Boulevard in Providence opposed expansion of a state rehabilitation facility on the city’s East Side.
The action by the two towns came after an online petition was started. Petition signers suggested that the proposed building is better suited for a vacant shopping center or another already-developed area in Richmond.
DEM has blamed itself for the pushback, saying it failed to reach out to the public about its intention to develop the land. State officials have said the structure is visually appealing and complements the wooded setting around the pond. The site was a state park before it was added to the Arcadia Management Area.
DEM said it chose the Browning Mill Pond site because of its proximity to most of the agency’s parks and fieldwork in rural Washington County. DEM has said the 13,000-square-foot building with two parking lots will not cause traffic or create a safety problem.
The $7.2 million cost has been funded in past DEM budgets, according to state officials. Construction was initially expected to be finished by March 2018.
An agency spokesman recently told ecoRI News that “DEM remains committed to providing additional recreational resources to the public but is unable to comment on the proposed Arcadia Natural Resources and Visitors Center because the matter is pending in the Rhode Island Supreme Court and we do not discuss cases in litigation.”
ecoRI News staffer Tim Faulkner contributed to this report.