For eight years the owners of 18 prime acres in Hopkinton and a national company have teamed up trying to build a multi-million dollar travel stop at Exit 1 just off Route 95. Proponents figured with few facilities for motorists along that section of the Interstate it would be a good fit. But the proposal has been tied up in local boards and a Superior Court lawsuit for years. With another key decision on the plan expected by the end of the month, Jim Hummel talks with those on both sides of the issue.
For motorists coming up Route 95 from Connecticut and crossing into Rhode Island - it’s slim pickin’s for places to eat, get gas or find a bathroom either on - or right off - the highway.
Connecticut has a handful of what it calls service plazas right on the state’s 100- plus miles of Route 95 - but by the time drivers reach the Rhode Island border 50 miles will have passed since the last one going north in Madison Connecticut.
The newly-reopened Rhode Island Welcome Center six miles north of the border between exits 2 and 3 isn’t much of awelcome: basically a place to park and a line of port o’johns await motorists.
That’s why this property adjacent to a Park and Ride just off Exit 1 in Hopkinton attracted the attention of Love’s - a national company wanting to put in an $8 million to $10 million travel center half a mile north of the Rhode Island/Connecticut border. It would accommodate tractor-trailer trucks and have food and bathrooms for all motorists.
The Oklahoma-based company has nearly 400 travel stops in 40 states, but not much presence in New England.
Gingerella: ``The property, while it’s on the south side of 95 is actually more visible as you go north on 95 you can actually see it from almost a mile back.’’
David Gingerella’s family has owned 18 acres in this prime location for 65 years. Love’s approached the Gingerellas in 2007 about using six or seven of the acres, located in a manufacturing zone along Route 3. The company needs a special use permit from the town to do it. What Love’s thought might be a 12- 18-month process has turned into an eight-year battle that still is not over.
The proposal pits some in Hopkinton, who don’t think what they refer to as `the truck stop,’ fits in with the rural nature of the town - against property owners who say they should be able to develop land that is costing them $1,000 a month in property taxes.
Gingerella: ``For whatever reason this has been a project that’s been opposed. And I’m not quite sure it’s been opposed by the majority I just think you have a very vocal minority that are in town, you know: Not in My Back Yard, I don’t want anything here.’’
Meanwhile the state last year proposed putting its own travel center and transit hub diagonally across from where the Love’s project would be - adjacent to an industrial park just off the northbound lane of Route 95, also near Exit 1. It would include a welcome center and food, along with a RIPTA bus hub and park and ride.
After initially sending a letter of support for the project, the town council says it no longer wants the D.O.T. to locate in Hopkinton. Just in the last week, the town of Richmond has expressed interest in having the transit hub on land near Exit 3 and the D.O.T. has begun discussions with town officials there. So it looks like the D.O.T’s plans for Hopkinton may be put on the shelf.
But the Love’s proposal remains and a decision on its fate could come at a zoning board meeting later this month.
Gingerella: ``If you want to deal with the motoring public you want to be right off of an interstate. Most people don’t even want to go half a mile or a mile off of an interstate. When they want to get off, do whatever business they need want to do, gas, food, buy any conveniences, use the facilities. And then get back on the road.’’
Despite that pitch - and the promise of lucrative property taxes for the town - Gingerella said Love’s faced opposition from the very beginning in.
Gingerella: ``The first meeting that we went to the Planning Board chairman says to us `This is the worst proposal I’ve ever seen and there’s no way this is going get built in our town.’”
Hummel: ``Before he heard the evidence.’’
Gingerella: ``Before he heard the evidence, before we even had a chance to explain to him what is was that we’d like to be able to do. And the hearings kind of continued in that same vein.’’
A Superior Court judge in 2014 overturned the town’s swift rejection of the initial proposal - confirming Gingerella’s assessment that the developers didn’t get a fair hearing. The judge put the case back in the lap of the zoning board - where there have been lengthy hearings off and on for more than a year.
Thompson: ``They have a business plan and they go into communities and they don’t give up. Well, Hopkinton doesn’t either.’’
Longtime Town Councilwoman Sylvia Thompson has been watching the proposal unfold.
Thompson: ``I believe strongly that you have to have hands-off with Love’s, it’s got to go through the process - because we appoint the zoning board members, if the town council starts monkeying about and shooting off whatever they think, we have to be careful.’’
But Thompson talks to a lot of people in town, who say there are alternatives for truckers.
Thompson: ``They don’t get why Love’s wants to do this when a mile and a half to the south we’ve got a truck stop. And then a few exits up at Exit 5 they’ve got a truck stop.’’
Capalbo: ``I try to stay out of the negotiations on that entirely because it really is between the zoning board and Love’s, but I find it really fascinating and how deep the zoning board is trying to go to say if it occurs, how do we protect the town?’’
Barbara Capalbo, who has been on the council the past 10 years, has attended virtually every zoning board hearing on the Love’s proposal since it came back from Superior Court.
Hummel: ``What is your main concern?’’
Capalbo: ``My main concern is protecting the aquifer, it’s actually my main concern. It’s on the secondary it’s not on the primary and then the additional traffic. Those ramps were not designed for that much truck and car traffic. I think that will end up being a problem we’ve already had a couple of accidents as people try to get off Exit 1 coming from the north.
There is a lot of talk about the aquifer because all of Hopkinton is on well water. The Love’s site is located on a secondary aquifer. Gingerella says the developers have gotten all of the state and federal permitting necessary and have addressed any potential problems in detail.
Gingerella: ``We brought in an expert that talked about the aquifer and explained that the aquifer is not a pond at the bottom of the this property but really bedrock and that the water of the aquifer is built into that bedrock and this project will have little or no chance of ever causing any issues to the aquifer.’’
Hummel: ``Even if there were a spill?’’
Gingerella: ``Even if there was a spill.’’
Gingerella said the town did rezone property his family owned across Route 3 from residential to commercial, allowing a business to come in. It has since moved to North Carolina and the property is up for sale.
Capalbo says she would like to see that type of development at the proposed travel center site.
Hummel: ``Why has it taken so long to get from there to where we are now?’’
Gingerella: ``That’s a great question because we’re going through a hearing and the amount of questions that are asked of each one of the expert witnesses that Love’s has presented have been intense. They have gone through hours of detailed questions about things that you would think would be relatively simple.’’
Hummel: ``So what happens if you go through this whole process you’ve spent, another two years, all of your investment and the zoning board turns you down? Then what happens?’’
Gingerella: ``It’s an interesting problem, because then they’ve probably rendered the property useless because of the restrictions and all of the issues they’ve done and we have to then figure out what to then do with it. This is a prime piece of real estate that is located on an interstate that under the current scenario looks like it’s undevelopable.’’
Hummel: ``What about those who would argue this is a total NIMBY I don’t want this in my own back yard? Would you say guilty as charged on that?’’
Thompson: ``Well look at this? I admit that I wouldn’t want Love’s next door to me or in my back yard.’’
Hummel: ``Some people would say that’s a healthy dose of NIMBYism.”
Capalbo: ``That would be true, but that is the benefit of citizens in every area is that they want to protect their property values, but they also want to protect their children, their way of life, and I think that is both a plus and a minus.’’
Gingerella says Love’s is still committed to the project, despite the controversy and expense fighting for it.
Gingerella: ``We think that we’re well within the general laws of the town of Hopkinton and state of Rhode Island and we think this is the right project at the right time - actually it was the right time probably six years ago - and it’s a missed opportunity for everyone if we don’t go forward.’’
In Hopkinton, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.