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A Hummel Report Investigation

Open Space

Twenty-five years ago two young state representatives had a brash idea that was a long shot when they first pitched it. But that idea became a reality in the fall 1987 - and has significantly changed the landscape of Rhode Island since then. This week Jim Hummel sits down with those two former lawmakers about what they proposed and about how the state might look if their idea hadn't panned out.

Click HERE to view the land aquired by DEM since 1988.

Click HERE to view the DEM Recreation Grant Awards from 1987 to 2007. 

SCRIPT

Twenty-five years ago two young state representatives had a brash idea that even they had doubts about becoming a reality: a $100 million bond issue for open space and recreation. This week go back to see how it became successful - and how Rhode Island's landscape is vastly different because of it.

In the mid-1980s nearly all of Rhode Island saw a building boom, with farmland like this being gobbled up by developers.

Chris  Boyle was a young  state representative who saw the changes on his daily ride from Newport to Providence.

Boyle: ``You saw the landscape changing in front of you in the '80s with subdivisions and commercial projects - you just watched it happened so that the Rhode Island I grew up with was changing before my eyes as I drove every day to the State House.''

Weygand: ``All of a sudden real estate development was rampant, people were flipping properties making a lot of money, taking up farmland, chewing it up making it into subdivisions. And there didn't seem to be any real standards or appreciation for open space/recreation.''

Bob Weygand was another young representative who sat next to Boyle in the House chamber that year.  The two talked about  the changing landscape  - a lot.

Midway through the 1987 session they hatched a plan that seemed like a long shot at best: it asked taxpayers to pass a $100 million bond issue to preserve open space,  farmland and create recreation areas across Rhode Island.

Weygand: ``We started at $25 (million),  then went to $50 (million) then went back and forth, then Chris said: `Let's just do $100 million, 'cause they'll probably knock it down a little bit.  Put it  in, see  where it goes.'''

Boyle: ``I remember clearly the day we introduced the bill, the Speaker, Matt Smith, giggled on the floor, at the Speaker's rostrum when he saw the number.''

Weygand: ``The bill goes up to the rostrum and Speaker Matty Smith look at it and he reads  it off. He says: `A bill of  general obligation bond issue from Representative Christopher Boyle and Representative  Robert Weygand.'  And he says: `Those tree huggers are at it again.

They're taking all of  the taxpayer's money and spending it on trees' or something like that."

Boyle: ``I think  it was a matter of Bob and I trying to get people's attention on the  issue."

Hummel: ``Did it get people's attention?"

Boyle. ``It sure did. It got his attention.''

The two young reps quickly realized that a State House full of mostly urban lawmakers needed to be included somehow, so they revised the bill to put in money for eight urban parks that had long been neglected, including Roger Williams Park and its dilapidated zoo.

Hummel: ``That gave the Providence delegation, which is no not an insignificant number of  people, ownership."

Boyle: ``Absolutely."

Hummel: ``Simple as  that."

Boyle: ``It gave them skin in the game.''

Weygand: ``All of a sudden,  D.E.M., Save the Bay and a number of other people took notice.

They said: `This is not a bad idea.' Now, all of a sudden, the state administration is saying how can we become a part of this?" There was a real desire out there by a lot of people that were not  tree-huggers to do  parks. There was a real desire for people who were tree huggers to protect  farms.  And there was also a real desire by builders and developers to say, `Sure let's set some of this aside and allow us to do our work.  You do your work.' There was a desire, really by a lot of different people to do something. But no one had really put together one piece of legislation that would really solve a lot of problems for different constituencies.''

Joe Dias, a 30-year veteran of the Department of Environmental Management and now the department's director of planning - remembers the negotiations.

Dias: ``They had park needs park needs in theirs and they should be addressed under  the bond.

That was convincing the urban areas of Warwick,  and East Providence and Central  Falls and Woonsocket and Newport that the open space bond is a good idea and here's your piece of it"

Hummel: ``It's a simple as: What's in it for me?"

Dias: ``Bingo."

The final version of the bill was scaled back to just over $65 million and was packed with the signatures of dozens of co-sponsors wanting to get in on the legislation. The bond passed easily in November and was popular enough that the legislature went back for an additional $75 million two years later.

So what did the money buy?

Dias: ``We've acquired land in every city and town in the state. It's all spread out through the state - even the local  grants one of the scoring criteria is: geographically spread the funds."

Ed DiPrete, the governor at  the time, envisioned  a super beach in South County. So D.E.M. used some of  the  bond money to purchase property to the north and south of Scarborough and renovated the now-signature pavilion.

Scarborough remains the flagship of the state beach system.

Over the next two decades the state would use the money to rehab the Misquamicut Beach pavilion to the south, as well as Roger Wheeler and East Matunuck along the South County coastline.  The money also purchased the controversial Black Point property just to the north of Scarborough in Narragansett. Black Point has a series of walking paths that lead down to a breathtaking view of the coastline.

Also included: the Fisherman's State Park campground near Point Judith, which is booked months in advance every year.

Another key component: preserving farmland that was being eyed by developers.

And 25 years later,  the parks that drew in the urban legislators have all been rehabbed courtesy of:

A total of $12 million for Roger Williams Park and its zoo.

$800,000 for City Park in Warwick.

$400,000 for Slater Park in Pawtucket.

$250,000 for what is now called Rose Larisa Park and the historic Loof Carousel in East Providence.

$250,000 for two parks in Newport.

and $200,000 for Jenks Park in Central Falls.

The bond was also structured to bring cities and towns to the table  - forcing them to match state money for the purchase of local recreation areas.

Boyle: ``You leverage local money so what the $65 million turned out to be was probably closer to the hundred million we started out with when you add the local contribution to it."

Dias: ``Those grants were 50 percent matching grants - the state was not going to pay 100 percent for the project - there was a two-way street, both would commit to getting this project done."

Hummel: ``So  every community had to come up with its own money?"

Dias: ``Correct."

And places like Ballard  Park in Newport combined 13 acres of private contribution with 54 acres purchased with public money.

Rose Island, which had an initial asking price of $3 million, went for $550,000 in the late 1980s.

Hummel: ``What acquisition or use of the money are you most proud of? Or most satisfied with?"

Dias: ``I really think the Blackstone Bike Path. If you ride it and you see it you'd never think you're in Rhode Island and it brings back all historical features of Rhode Island, using the Blackstone River, Slater Mill and it goes almost through all of the urban communities."

Twenty-five years later Boyle still makes the trip up Aquidneck Island in his capacity as a lobbyist at the State  House.

Hummel: ``What goes through you mind as you take that drive now?"

Boyle: ``Take the drive, or see the list, or go to a park. I take my children to Roger Williams Park Zoo and I do. I know the taxpayers put faith in us. It's really the taxpayers who have to be thanked for this. They paid the bill. But I think they had the foresight to say we don't Rhode Island to be just suburban sprawl. They did. They invested in Rhode Island in the '80s and all of us are enjoying  it today."

We showed Weygand the list of properties acquired with the bond money over the past 25 years.

Hummel: ``Were you surprised at the depth and the breadth of it?"

Weygand: ``I was. We both feared there would be  big projects that would gobble up the money. So they way we broke it up we have a fighting chance if we diversity it out to a lot of people. But you have to give D.E.M. a lot of credit and Joe Dias a lot of credit, because what they did over the years was parsed it out in a very sensitive and qualitative way.

Everybody had the opportunity throughout the state to be able to make moderate improvements in their community, whether it be an urban park - whether it be a piece of farmland that needed to be preserved or a stretch of coastline, or some historic preservation. Whatever it was, there  was an opportunity for them to be heard before D.E.M. and there was money set aside in diverse ways so that it wasn't going to be gobbled up by one particular project."

Hummel: ``In this legislation where  does it rate among some of the stuff you got passed?"  

Boyle: ``Boy this would have to be up near the top."

Hummel: ``Where does this piece of legislation rank among some of the ones you put in?"

Weygand: ``Oh, I think it's one of  the best."

Hummel: ``The whole landscape has  changed - literally and figuratively. If you hadn't struck while  the iron was hot you would have lost  the opportunity."
Dias: ``We would have lost some great properties."
Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.

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