On an unusually warm day in February, Browning Mill Pond in Exeter proved to be a popular place for visitors from near and far. Some were hiking, others were just hanging out near the pond located within the 15,000-acre Arcadia Management Area. The rustling of a brisk wind and the rushing water of a nearby stream were all you could hear.
The landscape, though, is scheduled to change dramatically here over the next year because the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is ready to break ground on a 13,000-square foot, $7.2 million building that the department is calling a Natural Resources and Visitor Center.
Although it’s been in the planning stages for years, few people outside of government knew about it until just a couple of months ago.
Katrina Thornley lives within walking distance of the pond and trails. When she found out more about the state’s plans, she put together a Facebook page and an online petition that has grown to more than 1,100 signatures. It asks Governor Raimondo to stop the DEM from constructing the building.
Katrina’s dad, Dave Thornley, spent a good chunk of his childhood in and around the pond. “It’s an office with a view.”
The property straddles the Richmond-Exeter line and has been a state park since the mid-1930s. Dave Thornley says he can’t understand why the DEM wants to spend so much money when it has other buildings it could refurbish.
“I thought it was outrageous; they have so many buildings in the area they can use. The forestry headquarters isn’t three miles from here and that’s a huge piece of property they have. I’m against them building anything new, not just because of how much it’s going to cost, but because how I’ve seen the buildings they have go to waste over the years.’’
The DEM’s associate director for Natural Resources Management, Larry Mouradjian, said the visitors center has been something the department has been considering for several reasons.
One factor was that the DEM employees housed at a building in Wakefield were displaced when the state needed it for the DCYF. He said the DEM also wants to have a central location for more than a dozen employees and a facility for the numerous outdoor programs it runs; it will also have a laboratory and biologist on site, a conference room and public restrooms in addition to parking for 42 vehicles.
Jim Hummel (Motif): What do you make of the opposition to this?
Larry Mouradjian: I have to admit the notion they are surprised that this has taken so long for us [is surprising]. We went through so many different public avenues, we had to go through budget, we had to go through notifications, we had to go through permitting requirements. Of course there was the public bid for the construction and the purchase order for the contractor for this project, but we also realize that those public opportunities are not necessarily ones that someone would ordinarily search to find.
JH: Did you hold any public forums down there?
LM: We did not hold any public forums down there.
JH: Should you have?
LM: In hindsight it probably would [have been] a good idea.
So the DEM held a public forum on March 9, drawing more than 100 people to the Richmond Elementary School auditorium. All but two of the speakers opposed the project; many supported the plan but took issue with putting it on Browning Mill Pond.
The DEM director, Janet Coit, took much of the barrage, but said contracts for construction had already been signed and was noncommittal when residents rose to implore the department to change locations.
Katrina Thornley said, “We figured the money would be used to actually take care of the environment instead of letting the bridges rot and letting the driveway across the street fill with potholes. Or they’d hire people to take care of it. That’s not what they’re doing with the money.”
Dave Thornley added, “You’ve got a forestry headquarters right down there, and I don’t see anybody hiking or biking or picnicking down there. It’s because there’s a building there. Nobody wants to go and have the state looking out the window at you. They don’t. This is a nice private place for families and individuals to come and enjoy.”
Mouradjian says the DEM has gone through the regular permitting process with state agencies to approve construction and septic systems. “The DEM is not going to be in violation of environmental concerns. We’ve done all the same permitting. Another issue was that a private person never would have been able to do this; it’s simply not true.’’
But one resident at the public meeting said the state would never allow a 13,000-square-foot private house to be built so near a body of water in Rhode Island. Mouradjian said the project has gone out to bid twice and the $7 million price tag is in line with the size and scope of what is being built.
The DEM says it is taking the communities’ concerns into consideration, but did not indicate if they would be swayed by the opposition. Officials planned to break ground this month with a completion date of 2018.
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