NORTH SMITHFIELD – A years-long debate over whether the town should purchase 144 acres of open space off Mattity Road appears to be over after property owner David Gold sold the rights to develop the land to a solar company last week.
On Friday, May 10, Gold signed an agreement with a solar developer to lease the land for 25 years, he confirmed during a phone call with The Valley Breeze. The decision, he said, came after the town offered $800,000 to purchase the property, $400,00 of which would come from a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management open space grant awarded to the town in 2018.
“They offered me, the Town Council on behalf of the good townspeople of North Smithfield, no more than the value of a house lot,” Gold said. “In fact, one of the lots in the deal is a four-acre parcel with what was a dilapidated house that I bought for almost that amount of money.”
Negotiations over a possible purchase of the property by the town began in 2008 and have stretched on more than a decade between Gold and various town officials. In 2008, the town signed a $2.7 million purchase and sales agreement but later canceled the deal after a new Town Council was voted into office. Several years ago, the price was lowered to $1.95 million, a proposal the current Town Council has considered several times in closed session over the past few months.
In recent years, said Gold, he has been approached by companies interested in purchasing the property for development. Though he told The Breeze he would prefer to see the land maintained as open space, with the town’s most recent offer far below asking price, he opted to move forward with a development agreement.
Though Gold declined to provide the name of the developer, Town Planner Tom Kravitz said his office was recently approached by Anthony DelVicario, a Rhode Island developer currently attempting to build a solar farm in Hopkinton under the name Rhode Island Renewable Energy, and his attorney, John Mancini, about developing a 10-megawatt solar facility on the Gold property. The town has not yet received a formal application for the project.
On Monday, members of the public expressed their disappointment over the outcome of negotiations, with several leveling criticism at the Town Council for failing to secure a purchase of the Gold property. Paul Soares, chairman of the North Smithfield Conservation Commission and an outspoken proponent of the purchase, accused councilors of ignoring the desires of voters and squandering an opportunity to acquire 144 acres of open space for the town.
“This council has procrastinated, vacillated and stonewalled for 15 months in considering this purchase. Only one councilor took the initiative to tour the property, and he has supported and promoted the acquisition,” he said.
Soares cited a $3 million open space bond approved by voters in 2006 and a 2001 visioning survey as evidence of voters’ desire to acquire more open space. According to the survey, 79 percent of residents thought the town should encourage more permanent open space.
“You have ignored the desire of your constituents by disregarding the visioning survey, and you have failed to abide by the voters’ directive to acquire more open space,” he said.
Several residents also expressed concerns with the handling of discussions around the property, which took place in closed session at several points over the past year. With the exception of Councilor Paul Zwolenski, who supported the proposed purchase, councilors have generally opted not to discuss the proposal during open town meetings or offer an update on the status of negotiations.
“The one major issue I have is I don’t know how any of you seem to feel about it because everything is discussed in executive session,” said Mike Calo, a member of the Conservation Commission.
Cynthia Roberts, a town resident who has raised concerns about transparency several times during the past year, said many residents rely on rumors to obtain information about the proposal and other town matters and are unaware of what factors councilors are considering in their discussion of the property.
“If there are compelling reasons not to buy it, let’s have a conversation about it,” she said. “We as residents should be considered intelligent enough to handle that information and dialogue.”
While meeting in closed session on purchase agreements or ongoing legal matters is common practice for municipal councils, Calo told The Breeze he thinks the North Smithfield Town Council overuses the practice, possibly dissuading some residents from participating in town government. On Monday, the Gold property purchase was one of four topics the council discussed in executive session during a mid-meeting session that lasted approximately 45 minutes, leaving residents in attendance to wait until councilors returned to the North Smithfield Middle School cafeteria to learn the outcome of the rest of the items on the agenda.
“I think part of the reason a lot of people don’t show up at these meetings is the lack of transparency,” he said.
The Gold property was not formally included as an agenda item on the open portion of the meeting. However, residents shared their thoughts on the town’s acquisition of open space during a public hearing that was initially listed at the end of two-page agenda but moved up earlier in the meeting at Zwolenski’s request. Several residents posed questions about the town’s approach to open space and use of current properties, and Megan Staples, a member of the Planning Board, suggested councilors develop a checklist of items to look at when considering future purchases.
“I’d like to see a lot more proactive planning done so that way these conflicts aren’t happening,” she said.
Several councilors, including Zwolenski, Douglas Osier Jr., and Claire O’Hara, acknowledged residents’ concerns over transparency, indicating they planned to take those concerns into account.