How Much Open Space is Enough?

I remember once the Democrats in Bolton, Connecticut, where I grew up, convinced my father to run for the zoning board. He did, and he almost won. In fact, the vote count was so close that the town asked him if he wanted a recount. He declined. I guess he figured he did his part — he ran when people believed he could do the job, that he would be a fair and wise decision-maker about where to put things for the safety and benefit of the majority of the community. But when it was clear that a large number of voters had nearly equal confidence in his opponent, he opted to continue spending his free time with his great loves — reading (books on economics, history, psychology, The New Yorker), gardening, and cutting down, chopping up and hauling wood from our land to heat our home in the winter. He also had six kids and a full-time professorship to attend to.

The point is that I could see my father’s hesitancy about taking on the responsibility of being on the zoning board. I could see how the questions of how to designate land responsibly would have weighed on him, particularly because he loved woodsy areas and outdoor activities like gardening so much.

In Cranston, we are facing a number of big zoning issues. The first and foremost is the placement of Cullion Concrete plant in a flood zone and very near a large residential area. Another major issue is the proposed development of Mulligan’s Island.

Churchill & Banks, the developer who has proposed to make the site of Mulligan’s Island into The Centre at Garden Hills, has been sending some correspondence recently and working with BJ’s to find support for their project. They sent some residents of Hilltop Drive letters explaining that they are donating “approximately 20 acres” of the 55 acres to open space and offering the abutters a piece of that land.

BJ’s of Johnston also recently handed out a letter to shoppers asking them to support the development of Mulligan’s Island so that another BJ’s can be built which will allow people to shop at the store “closer to where you live and work.” It was unclear from this letter whether this meant that the BJ’s in Johnston would also remain open.

Most recently, the president of Churchill & Banks, Richard Baccari, sent a letter to the Mayor of Cranston and members of the Council, in which he argued that they should support the Centre at Garden Hills because it will increase the tax base, create open space, and add a new and improved ball field to the city. He also states that the open space being deeded to the city is worth $3 million. Naturally, Churchill & Banks is suggesting that 20 acres is enough open space and that their development will contribute economically to the city, and that these factors, along with building another ball field, make the Centre at Garden Hills an irresistible offer.

On September 18, 2007 at 6:30 pm, the city’s planning commission will hold a public hearing in which residents can voice their opinion on the proposed development of Mulligan’s Island. This is a chance to consider whether we want to stick to the comprehensive plan for the city and do our commercial development in sites that are already commercially developed, or whether we want to use up what little open space we have left for more commercial development.

It’s important to try to fully realize that once a piece of open space is paved and a big box store goes in, there is no turning back. Is it worth it for the open space that is being donated? Will there be enough space for run-off of rain with the amount of area that needs to be paved for the parking lot? Are there other environmental impacts that will lessen the quality of life in the surrounding area?

If I were on the zoning board or planning commission for the city of Cranston, these and many other questions would be weighing on me heavily. It is very difficult to determine the value of not creating more commercial development. It involves taking into account the larger picture of the area of Cranston and recognizing that Mulligan’s Island is one of the only large open areas that we have left.

Do enough people really care about open space to ensure that we follow the comprehensive plan and redevelop vacant commercial areas instead of creating new ones? Time will tell.

2 thoughts on “How Much Open Space is Enough?

  1. Sometimes I think it’s easier to live in Los Angeles, where everything is already so overdeveloped that any new develop requires the tear-down of a 1970s-era strip mall, not, say, the razing of parkland. I was so confused, though, when just the other day I drove by a garbage truck that trumpeted from an advertising panel on its side: “Our landfills provide 17,000 acres of wildlife habitat.”

    My own 1950s-era house sits on land that was once apricot orchard, and it saddens me that I’ve not spotted a single apricot tree over the years I’ve lived in my neighborhood. Even if an orchard “must” go down in the name of booming postwar demand for new homes, it seems that just a little bit of clever planning could have left mature fruit trees standing where yards were imagined. It would have been a nice tribute to what the land once represented. Plus, apricots are tastiest when freely available in one’s backyard.

  2. The Open Space is not being “donated,” the City will pay in the long-term (not only to maintain it) but when the quality of life of its residents is compromised and a precedent is set to other developers. Where will developers go next if the Comp Plan and Zoning are changed for Churchill & Banks, Western Cranston! It won’t stop here, this will be the catalyst for future destruction of our City.

    Churchill & Banks is trying everything they can to get support for the project, but never address why it is so important that this land be destroyed rather than building elsewhere in Cranston (commercial land, empty buildings) where the development might be a good fit.

    I encourage all residents to attend Tuesday night’s meeting to show C&B that the city and its people aren’t for sale and to show our elected officials how the overwhelming majority of thier constituents don’t support this development!

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