BLT: Future of iconic East Avenue property in jeopardy

Campaign could see Sweet's Hill become wildlife observation space

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BURRILLVILLE –It is a piece of town culture and history; a rural sanctuary for wildlife; a natural, green greeting to Burrillville’s visitors; and part of a contiguous forest running all the way to Maine.

But if Sweet’s Hill is purchased for development, all of that is in jeopardy, according to members of the Burrillville Land Trust.

With the property, a 151.79-acre plot, now up for sale, the organization has launched an ambitious campaign to save the land – hopefully with the help of corporations or philanthropic organizations with “deep pockets.”

“The property has been on the BLT radar for many years,” said Land Trust President Paul Roselli. “Lately with COVID-19, increase in housing prices, and the move by city dwellers to the country, the 150-acre property has a greater threat towards development.”

It won’t be an easy goal to accomplish. The East Avenue lot, privately owned by Rick St. Angelo of Cranston, was listed for sale in May for $2.2 million.

Known as Sweet’s Hill or Indian Acres, the land was once part of a 1,000-acre parcel owned by dairy farmer Albert Sweet. Once the largest farm in Burrillville, the property was used to grow and produce hay, corn, milk and more.

Carlo Mencucci, a land trust board member, notes that the farm also produced boat keels from chestnut trees grown on the land during World War I.

And just this year, resident Roberta Lacey discovered a rare Native American artifact believed to be several thousand years old while hiking by the forested parcel.

“This property has significant historic value,” explained Land Trust board member Don Waterman in a video produced by the land trust to help launch the campaign.

Waterman noted that if the BLT is successful in raising the funds, they hope to re-establish a grove of white birch that once grew there.

“The white birch is relatively rare in Rhode Island,” Waterman said. “It would be a very worthy project to rehabilitate the remnants of this grove.”

A non-profit, volunteer organization formed in the year 2,000, the land trust’s mission is to preserve and protect the rural character of Burrillville through education, advocacy and acquisition. With properties including the 34.5 acre Sloan Preserve, and an easement on the land that holds the historic Benjamin Smith House known as Grace Note Farm, the group has purchased some 223 acres in town over the past 20 years.

This one, members say, is important for not only for cultural, historical and environmental reasons, but also for its location on Route 107 as an entry point into Harrisville.

“I remember when I first came to Burrillville and drove along East
Avenue, the property was iconic for me,” said Roselli. “The rolling hills, wetlands, forest edge, fireflies like fireworks sparkled during hot August nights… If first impressions are lasting ones, this one told me everything I needed to know about the town and wanted from a place I was about to call home.”

Roselli noted that over the 37 years that he has since lived in town, the property has often been slated for one type of development or another.

“Now, with the coronavirus, we know that a healthy society needs a healthy environment. Without clean air and water, the virus becomes a greater threat,” he said. “We need all the open space and forests we can get. We can’t let this place be bulldozed.”

In recent year, owner St. Angelo signed an option to purchase agreement with Clean River Energy Center, LLC, the Chicago-based company that hoped to build a power plant in town. The proposal to build the plant was ultimately defeated, in large part due to efforts by the BLT to preserve the region.

Roselli noted that St. Angelo is aware of BLT’s campaign.

Land Trust members point out that Sweet’s Hill is part of a contiguous forest that stretches all the way to Maine, and that if the property were developed into house lots, it would take 100 years to replace the loss of trees and biodiversity.

“Its important for the land trust, for the town and for our region,” said Roselli. “We fought a power plant and the destruction of an ecosystem for the past five years. Now we are gearing up to help save our town to maintain its rural character.”

Roselli noted that in addition to re-establishing a grove of white birch, the land trust hopes to use some of the money raised to create a bird/wildlife observation area, as the property is a fly-way for migratory birds.

While they have no current timeline for purchasing Sweet’s Hill, the goal, members note is to acquire the land for stewardship as soon as they reach their $2.2 million target. It will require help from one or many donors, and land trust members hope to attract those interested in planned giving, estates, or carbon offsets.

“Our goal is simple: we want to save this iconic property,” Roselli said.

The complete campaign video can be seen here.

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