NORTH SMITHFIELD – A controversial housing development long planned for land off Route 7 near Mattity Road cleared the first stage of the application process last week, receiving a green light from the Planning Board to move ahead to the next application stage.
However, Rankin Estates, as the 126-home proposal is known, still has a long way to go before breaking ground on the currently undeveloped land. The developer still needs to submit two more applications to the Planning Board, and members left Providence-based Narragansett Improvement with a long list of concerns and conditions they want addressed before awarding preliminary approval in the coming months.
Included on that list are:
• A traffic study;
• Feedback from the Department of Environmental Management on water and soil conditions;
• An archaeological study of possible Native American burial sites;
• A possible emergency access to Leonard Drive;
• And a determination on the developer’s “open space” proposals, including the possible removal of three multi-use fields from the plans.
The fields were a sticking point at at meeting last Thursday, Feb. 28, when Planning Board members and town groups argued they were not in keeping with the application’s status as a “conservation development,” a type of application requiring that a portion of the property be reserved as open space. Opponents of the field idea argued they would rather see the land maintained in its current state as a forested area with trails.
Attorney Michael Kelly, representing the developer, countered that the town zoning ordinance maintained the company’s right to develop the open space as fields, a legal question Town Solicitor David Igliozzi said he would look into prior to the next application stage.
“We heard from the Parks and Recreation Commission, Historical Association, Conservation Commission, all on the same topic, and all in agreement. I think that says something,” said Planning Board Chairman Gary Palardy, who supported removing the fields from the project.
The application has gone through several changes from when it was first submitted in June. In addition to reducing the original field proposal from seven to three, the developer relocated some lots to avoid the hilly areas in the western portion of the property. The changes, said Kelly, were made to address the concerns of residents, Planning Board members and Steven Cabral, the project’s peer reviewer.
Despite the changes, however, members of the North Smithfield Neighborhood Coalition, a citizens group opposed to the project, turned out to voice their objections last week. Alisa Richardson, an engineer and former Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management supervisor brought in by the coalition to testify, claimed the developer’s plan showed a flawed analysis of wetlands and soil types that would be unsuitable for building. Richardson also expressed concerns the development could mask a mining operation, a concern voiced my residents since the project was first proposed in the early 2000s.
Cabral also offered concerns about the developer’s current analysis, but noted town law allows the Planning Board to request the project be reduced at a future stage.
“If it wasn’t for the wording of the town ordinance, I would be extremely concerned,” he said.
Kelly denied the project is intended as a mining operation and noted the property’s hilly nature would require some moving of earth.
“The property is hilly, it’s not flat. When’s the last time you saw a 220-acre property that was flat?” he asked Planning Board members.
Len Bradley, of DiPrete Engineering, also defended the proposal, saying the board would receive much greater detail on site analysis and building plans during the next stage of the application.
“This is a master plan. We still need to do a lot more engineering, a lot more surveying. It’s at that next step we’ll be providing that information to the board,” he said.
Also present at the meeting were members of the Wabbaquasset Nipmuc Tribe, who shared concerns the site may contain Native American burial sites or artifacts. According to a legal settlement reached between the town and developer in 2014, Narragansett Improvement is required to commission an archaeological study of the site prior to the next application stage. As town officials explained, the developer reserves the right to choose the archaeological firm, but the study will be overseen by the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission.
One point of agreement between residents and the developer was a possible access road to Leonard Drive. While Town Planner Tom Kravitz argued emergency responders preferred an ungated road to improve response times, both Kelly and nearby residents said ungated access would create too much traffic on a residential street.
Planning Board members voted 4-1 to advance the project to the preliminary application stage. Member Jeff Porter voted against, while members Gary Palardy, David Punchak, Megan Staples and Roland Menard voted in favor. Members Michael Fournier and Richard Keene recused themselves from the vote.