There is a new local environmental movement afoot in Cranston called “Save Cranston’s Open Space.” I spoke with one of the leaders of the organization, Rachel McNally, today. She and at least 100 other families in the Oak Hill section of Cranston are strongly opposed to any commercial development of the land which is currently owned by Mulligan’s Island. This property is under consideration by developer Churchill and Banks and they are proposing a large commercial development. Details of the development and what is at stake are here at the “Save Cranston’s Open Space” website.
Rachel McNally explained that while a presentation from Churchill and Banks to the city’s planning commission was withdrawn, they remain concerned that other commercial development proposals will be considered. She is quoted in this Projo article:
Rachel McNally, one of the organizers of the opposition group, said yesterday that the postponement means little to neighbors who are committed to stopping the project or any other proposal that would erode open space and run counter to the Comprehensive Plan. [full text]
Anyone who has known me for more than a few years knows why this issue is particularly important to me. Three years ago, my family agreed to sell a parcel of 55 acres to open space in Tolland, Connecticut. This land, the Stoppleworth Conservation Area, runs alongside and behind the 85 acre Campbell Peaceful Valley, adding an additional 55 acres to the open space.
Campbell Peaceful Valley is a wonderful place to go hiking. The property is also important geologically, as described by Anthony Philpotts of the University of Connecticut’s geology department, who is delivering a lecture above on the peak of Campbell Peaceful Valley, which abuts the land which my family added to the open space.
I am obviously very proud of the involvement my family has had with conserving open space. Developers were chomping at the bit when we were negotiating the terms of our sale with the town. Though we agreed not to advertise the property for sale and to give the town right of first refusal, developers were still calling me and visiting my mother. If developed residentially, or in other ways, the land was worth substantially more than the price we agreed to accept from the town. My mother’s rationale was that we would get a fair market price out of them but we would not hold out forever because we wanted the land to be sold and made open space, to expand the Campbell Peaceful Valley. We are by no means a financially wealthy family so this was not a profit-making enterprise so much as a conscious decision to be a part of the history of preserving open space.
We negotiated in good faith a covenant with the town of Tolland that swears that the land will remain open space “in perpetuity.” They also allowed us to put a bench on the property, which we installed deep in the woods beside one of the small brooks, in honor of my father, who shrewdly took what little savings he had and purchased the land back in 1975 (for $32,000!). My father loved the land and I joined him many times as a child, going on Saturday mornings to cut up a fallen tree (or one intentionally cut down) and load it into the flatbed of our old yellow Ford pick-up.
The situation with the Mulligan’s Island land is different, but there is a shared sense that the community committed to preserving open space and protecting residential areas from rampant development. As referenced in the 1992 Comprehensive plan for the city, the Mulligan’s Island land is zoned as “Mixed Use Planned District.” Neighbors fought to make sure Mulligan’s Island was not a big development, and they are planning to continue the fight to keep that property from being developed any further.
I join with my neighbors in Oak Hill in opposing commercial development of this property. We need to continue to honor our commitments to protecting residential areas and open space. It is clear from the last comprehensive plan that the city wrote in 1992, that this was an important theme. Specifically, “the cornfields,” as the area now owned by Mulligan’s Island was previously known, was “not recommended for major economic development initiatives because of its proximity to nearby residential areas and a recreational site.”
Municipalities need to be held responsible for their commitments to residential communities and open space. They frequently try to violate their own prior commitments, and they need the community to remind them that this is not acceptable.
But beyond the principle of honoring prior commitments, the city also has to make sure that developments undertaken in Cranston are worth the toll they exact. In the cost-benefit analysis, the income from tax revenue needs to be enough to justify the accommodations made. Rachel McNally told me that the developer estimated the city of Cranston would reap about $800,000 in tax revenue from their proposed big box and gas stations development. But the budget for Cranston is about $250 million dollars a year — approximately a quarter billion dollars. The profits from this development would be less than 1% of the overall budget for the city. This is not much when you consider the environmental, noise, safety and economic impacts of this kind of development.
And a final question: do we really want to drive another nail in the coffin of local small businesses? Do we really want to more fully embrace this national trend of gutting our older commercial areas and creating huge new ones? I agree with the city’s plan that calls for the creative reuse of commercial areas already built.