Regional Public Forum

How Secure is Your Town’s Open Space?

Public forum on protecting municipal property from development

Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, 7 p.m.

Smithfield Town Hall Council Chambers, 64 Farnum Pike, Smithfield, RI

RI Association of Conservation Commissions
Smithfield Conservation Commission

Can a community protect selected property from development forever – and should it?

  • Cumberland officials wanted to build a police station on protected town land at the Monastery; there was a public uproar.
  • Burrillville deeded town property to the local Land Trust to fend off development, then wanted it back.

The land protection question will be discussed at a public forum on February 11 at 7 p.m. at the Smithfield Town Hall, 64 Farnum Pike, under auspices of the Rhode Island Association of Conservation Commissions (RIACC) and sponsorship of the Smithfield Conservation

The topic: “How secure is your town’s open space?”
Panelists will be Jeff Mutter, who was president of the Cumberland Town Council when it voted to protect the Monastery, and Paul A. Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust and RIACC vice- president, who battled his town’s land-recovery effort.

The issues:
In 2004, Cumberland acquired title to the former Trappist Monastery on Diamond Hill Road. Conservationists clamored to preserve the property in its pristine state and defend it against any development. The Town Council in response enacted a conservation easement and restrictive covenants to preserve the property “in perpetuity.” Then in 2014 came a need for new public safety facilities; town fathers recommended using a part of the monastery property, town residents balked and the project was abandoned although a bond issue was approved for the facility if and when a site is chosen.

In 2007, after nearly a year of town council meetings and written proposals, Burrillville transferred 18 acres to the Burrillville Land Trust, a local private non-profit organization. The Council had made similar transfers on other occasions. In this case the Council felt that the 18 acres would be better protected from not only commercial development but from future councils which might want to develop or sell the land for needed town funds. They were right. The 2008 election replaced enough members to change the Council’s mind and the battle was on.

The panelists will present their beliefs on the issue, gained through in-the-trenches struggles, and how they achieved their goals – and whether what they achieved is what they now support. The sponsors hope the audience will produce a lively discussion, will comment and ask questions of panelists after their presentations, and will walk away with information and a checklist on how they can approach their town’s open space governance.

Dan Novak, RIACC president, sees the forum as a discussion of “to what extent, if at all, should land set aside for preservation be considered for state uses or public needs, a matter of responding to legitimate concerns — or giving in to dangerous precedents and creating a slippery slope? What criteria should be used in adjudicating the competing claims of land held in trust and inevitably changing future conditions? What principles should guide such decisions, legally, morally and ecologically?”

RIACC is a non-profit organization devoted to fostering cooperation and coordination of municipal Conservation Commissions on a statewide and regional basis. It is sponsoring public forums quarterly throughout the state to air environmental topics of concern to Conservation Commissions in the host region and beyond. Information gained will be used to help RIACC guide municipal commissions and advocate for or against environmental legislation in the General Assembly.