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Office with a View

A plan by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to build a $7 million natural resources and visitors center off the beaten path in Richmond/Exeter is facing opposition from more than 1,100 people who have signed a petition asking the governor to stop the project. This week: we visit the proposed site, located on the banks of a 50-acre pond within the Arcadia Management area. Jim Hummel also sits down with two opponents leading the charge, plus DEM’s point man for the project, who says it’s been years in the making.

SCRIPT:

On an unusually warm day last month, Browning Mill Pond in Exeter proved to be a popular place for visitors from near and far.

Some were hiking, others 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 on this day - and many days.

The landscape, though, is scheduled to change dramatically here over the next year, as the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management 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: ``learned to fish here, spent a lot of time with my friends here.’’

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 people. It asks Governor Raimondo to stop DEM from constructing the building.

Dave: ``It’s an office with a view, that’s what I’m looking at it as. That’s the  way I feel it’s going to be.’’

Katrina’s dad, Dave Thornley, also spent a good chunk of his childhood in and around the pond.

Dave: ``I loved it when I was a kid, when I was a kid, down just this side of that grassy area by the water, that used to be a well manicured sandy beach.’’

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 DEM wants to spend so much money when it has other buildings it could refurbish.

Dave: ``I thought it was outrageous, they have so many buildings in the area they can use; the forestry headquarters isn’t 3 miles from here and that’s a huge piece of property they have there. I’m against them building anything new, not just because of how much it’s going to cost, but because how I’ve see the buildings they have go to waste over the years.’’

Larry: ``We think it was a wise decision. We think it’s an excellent design.’’

Larry Mouradjian is DEM’s associate director for natural resources management. He said the visitor’s center has been something the department has been considering for several reasons.

One factor was DEM employees housed at this building in Wakefield were displaced when the state needed it for DCYF. He said DEM also wants to have a central location for more than a dozen employees and a facility for the numerous outdoor programs is runs; it will also have a laboratory and biologist on site, a conference room and public restrooms. In addition to parking for 42 vehicles.

Larry: ``The idea came to look at both taking the public benefit of having access to staff, providing staff accommodations and seizing the need and the opportunity to develop a visitors center for a badly-needed resource. As we were concerned for the people and the invitation we were making for Arcadia, which is mountain biking, so many other kinds of activities that have become very popular that literally we could provide an efficient, cooperative facility here; we think that there’s’ a huge efficiency of idea in this design/operational efficiency location, so we continued to think this is a wonderful project.’’

Hummel: ``What do you make of the opposition to this?’’

Larry: ``I have to admit the notion they are surprised that this has been taken so long for us, 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 the public bid for the construction, purchase order for the contractor for this proejct, but we also realize that those public opportunities are not necessarily one that someone would ordinarily go search to find.’’

Hummel: ``Did you hold any public forums down there?’’

Larry: ``We did not hold any public forums down there. Of course…’’

Hummel: ``Should you have?’’

Larry: ``In hindsight it would probably be a good idea.’’

Late last week DEM announced it would hold a public meeting to answer questions and discuss concerns about the project. It is scheduled for Thursday March 9th at the Richmond Elementary school.

Dave: ``It took us a month and a half to see the plans for this, it took that much research and you know doing research on line and having other individuals that got involved along the way once they found out to see the plans along this place.’’

Katrina: ``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 filled with pot holes. Or they’d hire people to take care of it, that’s not what they’re doing with the money.’’

Mourajdian said the $7 million money is coming out the capital budget, money that can’t be used for operational costs.

Governor Raimondo, though a spokesperson, tells The Hummel Report she has met with the director of DEM to ``ensure there will be a full community outreach plan.’’

And that while she has never been to Browning Mill pond, ``she and her family enjoy hiking in Rhode Island’s many parks and wildlife refuges.’’

The governor is also aware of the online petition opposing the project but there was no mention in the statement of stopping it.

Hummel: ``How do you react to that when some people say `Look, you really got to get on board because this is a perfect place to put this and you just don’t want it because it’s in your own back yard.’”

Katrina: ``There’s actually people in Providence that are saying it’s not a good location for it, people in Cranston, people that don’t live here that are saying it’s not a good area because it’s just off the beaten trail, really. It’s going to harder for them to get to it; if it was off 165 that would make more sense because it’s easier access - it’s a little road, it can’t handle that much traffic.’’

Dave: ``You’ve got a forestry headquarters right down there 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.’’

Hummel: ``So you think if they put the building up it’s going to drive people away?’’

Dave: ``Oh I know it’s going to.’’

Hummel: ``Because on paper they’re saying it’s going to be a magnet for people to come.’’

Dave: ``Oh yeah that’s what they’re saying it’s going to….’’

Hummel: ``And do you believe that?’’

Dave: ``I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it whatsoever; that’s their ploy, that’s how they’re putting it out there, it’s going to make it much more user-friendly, more beautiful. I’ve never a building make a place like this more beautiful.’’

Mouradjian says DEM has gone through the regular permitting process with state agencies to approve construction and septic systems.

Larry: ``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.’’

Katrina: ``We’re okay with them using a different location if they’re going to take care of it, use an old building and just revamp that one, that’s fine, that makes sense, but spending $7 million on a brand new building that we don’t need doesn’t make sense.’’

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.

Larry: ``We’re confident that this will be a greater public value. Those who are fortunate to live in this general vicinity, I respect their values, but at the same point the state has made a huge investment and has an obligation to a statewide public and the opportunity to provide that kind of training  and guidance to people to really take advantage of that investment. The notion that you simply go someplace else, I don’t know how to answer that question.’’

In Exeter, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.