By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – While most members of the local planning board stop short of calling themselves “stepchildren” when describing North Kingstown’s handling of future land use at the intersection of Rts. 102 and 2, nobody denies there’s rampant unhappiness.
Exeter’s planners feel excluded. North Kingstown, they say, is acting high-handed.
The saga started in 2008 when the State Properties Committee, along with North Kingstown and Exeter, purchased development rights to 112.5 acres at the corner of Rts. 2 and 102, site of the Bald Hill Nursery.
While the initial goal was to protect the land from development, the situation has evolved over time with a stakeholders’ group of 20 interested parties formed to study future development of the site. The number of voting members was winnowed to 11 earlier this month and Exeter was afforded no representation.
Exeter’s citizen-planners are annoyed by this oversight but they also think North Kingstown is reinventing the wheel: the decision was already made four years ago.
Mike Abbott, who heads Exeter’s board, says, “When there’s a zoning decision or comprehensive change on the border of a town, what’s immediately on the other side of the line in the adjoining town has to be taken into consideration. We are supposed to be in concert and in discussion about what happens there.”
A particular bone of contention is the makeup of the stakeholders’ committee whose meetings planning board member Frank DiGregorio and town planner David W. Schweid attend as non-voting members.
Exeter wants a vote.
“We have abutting property,” says Abbott of the area in question which, besides potentially becoming a housing development is also being contemplated for business as well. It is in the heart of farm country.
“We have a picnic grove there,” he explains. “We get official notification and go to meetings but we think we should be part of the planning now. It’s wise for Exeter and North Kingstown to work together. We were basically told to stay home; we took it as a bit of a slap.
“The two of us purchased that corner. They’re charging off on their own; we’re not invited to participate.”
Specifically, DiGregorio notes, “In cooperation with the owner of the Bald Hill Nursery”, the State of Rhode Island, the towns of North Kingstown and Exeter and a private donor purchased the development rights of that property for $5.5 million to assure the type of development maintains or complements the existing rural/agricultural character.
Abbott’s concern is the discussion of adding a business aspect.
“I’m leery of 100,000 square feet of commercial,” he says. “What? We’ve just preserved farm land and open space kitty-corner. What they’re doing now is not a common vision.”
While he points out that eventually Exeter will have voting rights as a municipal abutter where any necessary legal action can be taken, Abbott notes that unpleasantness could be avoided if North Kingstown treated Exeter as a partner.
“It would be wise to get in on the process now so they don’t get to the end and are maybe at odds with what we’re trying to do” at the intersection. We’re a little riled up. Invite us to the table.
“We won’t be quiet when it comes to the final say; we’ll have our attorney there. We’ll get there one way or another. We applaud that they’re doing the study but we wish we were part of it.”
Adds Davis W. Schweid, Exeter’s town planner, “We do feel that what happens on that corner in North Kingstown has a big impact on what happens on the same corner in Exeter. It seems that North Kingstown has several different factions; some seem intent on greater levels of development there.
“I’m not convinced more development is a terrible thing but it depends on how it’s done, what goes there; how it compliments the open space. An issue for Exeter is our picnic grove. Will there be linear-type open space there for a buffer? I’m hoping for good design work, good transition to agriculture uses on our side.”
He says that while the neighboring towns have a good history of cooperation, “there’s friction lately.” After the first stakeholders’ meeting last week, attended by Schweid and DiGregorio, the town planner emerged optimistic.
“I thought the meeting was hopeful. There’s a real polarization but there are also some interesting possibilities. It’s a tough process. It wasn’t bad for a first meeting.”
DiGregorio warns that any growth in the area in question must be compatible with the established agricultural-rural character. Excluding representatives of the entities that contributed to purchasing the development rights to preserve the land, he says, “would be a grave injustice.”
Protecting the Rt. 102 scenic highway from development already creeping west from Rt. 4 could affect the entire Washington County region, he notes, “especially along South County Trail” which is a focal area for Exeter’s village concept.
He believes long-term regional planning will be impossible without cooperation.
“I do feel – and we all do in Exeter – that we’re not being taken as seriously as we should.”