2016-05-12 / Front Page

Debate on Fields Continues

By Olga Enger

Last year, a controversial proposal to convert 60 acres of farmland into recreational fields on the corner of East Main Road and Mitchell’s Lane in Middletown was eventually rejected by Town Council, amid a flurry of concerns over traffic, noise pollution and environmental impacts.

A handful of Middletown residents want to guarantee those concerns are not dismissed over time.

The group, Save Middletown’s Open Spaces, requested that Town Council work with the Aquidneck Land Trust (ALT) to modify the language of a conservation easement attached to the 33-acre Tibbetts Farm property.

Although the conservation easement prohibits most development, the town negotiated the use of recreational fields, artificial lighting, bathrooms and underground facilities when it purchased the Tibbetts Farm and Boulevard Nurseries properties from ALT for $2 million in 2008.

Tibbetts Farm is currently leased as farmland.

“The proposed changes are needed because today, we have a much better understanding of the critical importance of this property than we did in 2008, when these easements were created,” said Middletown resident Sara Poirier, speaking before Town Council on May 2.

Poirier explained the group intentionally left out Boulevard Nurseries from its request.

“We felt there was a stronger case to make with Tibbetts Farm, as a source for the Maidford River is located on the property,” Poirier told Newport This Week. She added the area is home to rare plant and wildlife habitats and classified as a Natural Heritage Area by the Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

The revisions would not only preserve the many voices who spoke up against the recreational fields, but they are also consistent with the town’s comprehensive plan, said Poirier.

“The value of this land to the community is beyond measure and if properly managed, it should grow even more so,” said Poirier.

Town Solicitor Peter Regan cautioned the council against “tying the hands” of future councils by giving away the rights they negotiated and paid for in 2008.

“Under General Laws 45-2-5, in order for the town to dispose of property, or property rights that are required for public purpose, council first has to make a finding that those rights are no longer suitable,” said Regan.

“More importantly, the council does have a duty to preserve and maintain assets of the town,” added the solicitor. “These use rights were something specifically negotiated and paid for at the time the property was purchased, so to give them up without receiving something of equal value in return, an argument could be made that you are breaching that duty.”

“What are we looking for in return?” asked Councilor Paul Rodrigues.

“It’s something you paid for, something you bought,” Regan explained. He analogized that if a building is no longer useful to the town, it is sold, not given away.

Rodrigues disagreed the town would not receive anything in return.

“For me, the return is there could never be anything built on there [that would] affect the watershed area,” said Rodrigues. “We are so focused on water right now, and water quality. That’s what we would be getting in return.”

ALT’s Executive Director Chuck Allott told Newport This Week that he was not aware of the agenda item and did not speak at the council meeting.

“At this point, we don't have a position on it. We negotiated a conservation easement with the town, and granted them the right to develop the recreational fields,” said Allott.

He added if the town initiated the conversation, he wouldn’t be opposed to revising the agreement.

“If the town decided they wanted to do something, there is not anything I can see in Sara’s letter that is wrong. It is the headwaters of Maidford

River. I do think it’s important that we are careful about what we do on the property,” said Allott.

Even if recreational fields were built, he feels the town would be mindful of the water source. During the conversations surrounding the proposal to build the recreational fields, Allott said the plan was consistent with their vision.

“The protection of parks and recreation lands, including golf courses and sports fields, is totally consistent with ALT’s mission to protect open space. On such a densely populated island, parks and recreation land in the right size and scale and managed properly is just as vital to the quality of life as the protection of farmland, watersheds and wildlife habitat,” Allott wrote in an open letter.

Poirier told Newport This Week she found irony in a separate item on the meeting’s agenda, where councilors unanimously supported two bills in the legislature that would increase the local meals and beverage tax to dedicate more funds to stormwater and drinking water projects.

In addition to sharing the cost of a $55 million upgrade to the Coddington Highway Wastewater Treatment Facility, Middletown has identified 32 projects related to water quality, with a tab of $11 million.

“The Bailey Brook, Maidford River and Paradise Brook are negatively impacted by pathogens and nutrients, which contribute to the degradation of the raw water supply at Gardiner Pond, Nelson Paradise Pond, North Easton Pond and South Easton Pond,” reads the resolution in support of the meals tax legislation.

Council did not take action on the request to change the conservation easement or schedule a follow up conversation.

Poirier said the open spaces group hopes to pursue the matter in the future when appropriate.

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