NORTH SMITHFIELD – For the past week and a half, area residents have been flocking to Mattity Road, wandering through trails and across streams on an 140-acre property known as the Gold Forest.
Owners David and Marcia Gold temporarily opened the private property to visitors, giving nature lovers a chance to explore its beauty, wildlife and historic features.
It’s an arrangement the Golds extended through Sunday, May 3 this week – and one that they hope to make permanent.
A tentative agreement between the Golds and a solar company would see 56 acres of the land donated to the town for conservation and open space. Solar panels would cover 42 acres on the undeveloped northwest portion of the lot, which would also be given to the town after the project has run its course.
“They agreed to donate a great portion of the forest the moment the deal is signed,” Gold told NRI NOW this week.
An application by Bel Air Realty, LLC, to build a 21-megawatt array on a portion of one 124 acre lot includes a plan to give the town of North Smithfield the 56 acres of conservation land at no cost. A master plan for the project is currently before the town Planning Board, and in a separate request before the Zoning Board, the applicant has asked for a special use permit and dimensional variance.
Known as “Douglas Pike Solar,” the proposal for the ground-mounted array was submitted in fall of 2019, with site plans designed by DiPrete Engineering.
“Proposed changes to the property include tree clearing, an access road, a security fence and the installation of a solar array and associated equipment,” notes the zoning application.
The offer is the latest chapter in a contentious debate regarding town ownership of the property that goes back some 13 years. And it’s a story that some say is rife with wasted resources and missed opportunities.
Potential funding for purchase of Gold’s land, a sprawling, well-maintained forest that includes six miles of scenic hiking trails, was first approved by North Smithfield voters in 2007 in the form of a $3 million bond for conservation and open space. In 2008, the town signed a $2.7 million purchase and sales agreement and gave the Golds a $50,000 non-refundable deposit. But officials later canceled the deal after a new Town Council was voted into office. At the time, an appraisal for the property came back at $1.95 million.
In 2018 Gold says he was approached by then-council President John Beauregard and a lower offer of $1.95 million was negotiated over a series of meetings. The town applied for a $400,000 grant from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to help finance the expense.
An application submitted to RIDEM by Town Planner Tom Kravitz was approved and with $400,000 in guaranteed financing, the town ordered a second appraisal.
But Beauregard lost his seat on the council in November of 2018 and was replaced as chairman by Paul Vadenais. And Gold says the change in politics again came with a change of heart.
“I think, from the very beginning, he had no interest at all,” Gold said of Vadenais.
In a private meeting with chairman and Town Administrator Gary Ezovski, Gold says he was offered $800,000 for the land, with $400,000 to come from RIDEM. He walked out, offended at what he says was a lowball offer – some $1.1 million less than the previously agreed upon price.
“That was a slap in the face and a stab in the heart,” Gold said.
And the town ultimately walked away on the $400,000 grant from DEM.
Vadenais said that Gold’s assertion that he was not interested in the property, “could not be any more incorrect.”
The decision to make the offer, he noted, was made by unanimous vote in executive session.
“The executive session was placed on the agenda by me so that a decision could be made one way or the other for or against,” Vadenais said. “I was in favor of making an offer to purchase the property before the town’s grant expired.”
Vadenais has noted publicly that the property was assessed at only $600,360. He told NRI NOW this week that the most recent appraisal, which has never been released publicly, was ordered by the previous council, and that he himself has never seen it.
Ezovski said he’s pleased by the potential outcome of the process.
“I made it clear to all that I didn’t share interest in purchasing the property at the asking price,” the administrator said. “I have no regret for that position, particularly since there may be possibility that we could ultimately obtain the land at no cost.”
Gold, meanwhile, says he signed a deal the same night with a solar developer for some half a million more than the $1.95 million the town was originally offering.
Solar developer Anthony DelVicario now has a contract for rights to develop the property, and hopes to install panels on a 1,367,267-square-foot vacant, wooded area of the lot. The solar project will require a special use permit according to town zoning laws. Additionally, the developer is seeking a dimensional variance to install solar on 34 percent of the 124-acre lot, rather than the 20 percent allowed by ordinance.
“These locations for the solar array seek to minimize the amount of mature forest disturbance to the greatest extent practicable while still creating an economically viable renewable energy project,” an environmental survey of the land explains. “The project shall not result in significant adverse impacts to animal species of concern or critical habitat for such species.”
As the applications move through the process, residents have taken Gold up on his immediate offer to share the land. From scenic views and winding paths, to the remains of a historic piggery from the 1850s, the property has provided an outdoor reprieve at a time where many activities are limited as the region works to curb the spread of COVID 19.
“I’ve never allowed anybody on my property,” Gold said. “This was my private park and forest.”
On Wednesday, April 8, he declared the property open to visitors through May.
“I decided what could be better than to give the townsfolk the opportunity to get out of their house and see the beauty that surrounds them,” he said. “I’ve met people who are so thankful. I’m very glad we did it.”
And town officials’ decision to offer Gold significantly less for the land has not been without fallout. Former Conservation Commission Chairman Paul Soares has condemned the action, and has said that the Gold property was at the center of a conflict between him and the town administrator that ultimately led to the resignation of all six long-standing members.
In a note to NRI NOW, Cynthia Roberts of Engage North Smithfield also condemned the decision and the process of making the offer in sessions closed to the public. ENS, she noted, learned of the issue too late to give input on the proposal.
“We were set to raise the issue and help residents advocate for transparency and open space acquisition opportunity, but everything was done behind closed doors and as a result it’s the community who missed out,” Roberts said. “Many residents are interested in increasing open space and this was an unfortunate missed opportunity.”
“ENS is interested in increasing transparency around land use decisions so that there aren’t only a small number of people with power making decisions without consulting the community,” she added.
Gold says the meeting with Vadenais was the only time negotiations for his property were held in closed session.
“These meetings ought to be banned,” Gold said.
Vadenais has defended the decision, saying such negotiations are not done in public sessions.
Beauregard also weighed in on NRI NOW‘s Facebook page stating, “We came very close to owning this property and it would not have cost the taxpayers one penny.”
For his part, Gold is happy he made the decision to open the land – a conservation space some 42 years in the making – for people to enjoy in a time of crisis. Wide open trails marked by signs dart the proposed conservation acreage, and features such as benches and scenic overlooks are abundant.
Gold notes when he bought the land, “You couldn’t walk past the stream because the brush was so thick.”
He tamed the land by hand over decades – starting with the help of two sons and a machete.
“We had such a great time,” he said.
In the time since, he’s raised a family, along with horses, cattle, exotic birds and goats on the land.
“I’ve spent more than $1 million to make my trails and make my dream,” he said. “I want people to see feel and touch the history.”
He notes that the decision to share the land was made following a conversation along one of the trails with his mother, who at the time was dying of cancer.
“I realized I wanted to make sure that all the effort I put into this place was not just for my personal gratification,” Gold said.
He said he hopes to install a sign at the entrance to the land in his mother’s memory.
The panels, he says, would be out of sight and would not interfere with the conservation area.
“That won’t hinder anybody from hiking the trails,” Gold said.
But the deal, he notes, is dependent on the outcome of an upcoming vote on DelVicario’s master plan.
“The solar company has no interest in owning a forest,” Gold said.
The planning board is currently scheduled to take up the issue at a meeting on Tuesday, May 5.
Editor’s note: NRI NOW invites anyone who would like to weigh in on this issue to email firstname.lastname@example.org.