BURRILLVILLE – The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s purchase of a 235-acre campground in town became official this week, with the signing of final documents and transfer of more than $2 million to members of the Burrillville family that owned it for nearly six decades.

Echo Lake Campground was founded in 1952 by Helen and John Moroney, lifelong Pascoag residents, and active members in both politics and the local community.

Helen worked for Sen. Theodore Green in Washington, DC from 1937-1961, for Gov. Notte in Rhode Island from 1961-1963, was a delegate to the democratic national convention for President John Kennedy and then served in the RI Legislative Council.

She was also a longtime member of both the Burrillville Democratic Town Committee and the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, and president of the Board of Trustees of the Pascoag Public Library.

Helen was predeceased by her husband John, and died in 2015 at the age of 96.

The campground was purchased from the Trustees of the Helen F. Moroney Real Estate Trust for $2,030,000 with the state’s existing Open Space Bond funds.

“Helen leaves a wonderful legacy,” said Jane O’Neil, one of four trustees listed on the deed, filed at Burrillville Town Hall this week.  “Her nieces and nephews grew up spending summers on the lake and will miss walking through the woods as well as many boating activities. Many beautiful memories were made by campers and family alike. Helen knew every camper by name and enjoyed seeing them every summer.”

Town Manager Michael Wood said the DEM purchase is “probably the best solution,” for the land, noting that a one point the owners were considering private development.

“Given the potential alternative, I think that’s a great solution for that property,” Wood said. 

History shows the state has long seen the value of the property and abutting man-made lake, also known as Pascoag Reservoir. The state acquired a lot just south of the campground and built a boat launch in 1965 – a pubic access point that became the center of a somewhat bizarre court case in a battle for rights to the lake.

Thirty-two years later, former state Rep. Vincent Mesolella, whose company Pascoag Reservoir & Dam, LLC owned land beneath the lake, put up signs deeming the water “private property,” and raised a gate to drain water from the area.

“The DEM, which has a public boat launch at the popular swimming, boating and fishing spot, refused to buy it for $400,000, claiming after more than 30 years of use, it had prescriptive rights to the property,” noted a 1998 article in the Providence Journal of the lake, which reportedly fell to a 35-year low of 3 feet, 6 inches that year.

At first the courts sided with Mesolella, before ultimately ruling that the government itself can acquire an easement by prescription, or title by adverse possession. The decision focused on public access at DEM’s boat launch, situated just south of the camp, in a historic land rights case before the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

Now, the streams, winding trails and 3,000 feet of lake front that have made the campground a favorite with nature lovers will be protected in perpetuity.

“This acquisition is an unparalleled opportunity to secure a large swarth of the freshwater shoreline on Echo Lake along with a substantial tract of conserved forestland,” said DEM Director Janet Coit. “DEM’s purchase of this property further protects water quality and provides significant recreational benefits in northern Rhode Island and is a nice complement to our George Washington Management Area.”

DEM manages four state campgrounds in addition to George Washington, including Burlingame State Campground, Charlestown Breachway, and East Beach Campground in Charlestown; and Fishermen’s Memorial Campground in Narragansett.

According to a release, DEM will develop a master plan in order to pursue long term camping options, “to identify the most appropriate business structure for the property and conceptualize a layout plan to achieve that vision.” The release notes that officials will be working closely with the town of Burrillville.

The deed, which notes that $30,000 of the purchase price pertains to a 2.3 acre segment of the camp over the town line in Glocester, also notes the purchase is”for conservation of natural resources and recreation purposes.”

According to DEM’s Division of Planning and Development, properties of this size are increasingly rare in Rhode Island. Preserving this land adds to the existing 15,100-acre corridor of conserved forestland in the northwest corner of the state that filters our air and water, providing innumerable benefits to wildlife as well as recreational opportunities.

Until DEM finalizes its plan and completes any necessary updates to the property the campground and docks will remain closed. Only passive use of this property will be allowed and all rules and regulations for DEM properties will apply.

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