Effort to dedicate money to open space in N.S. runs up against questions on process

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – An initiative by Town Council President John Beauregard to permanently direct tax money received from the Green Development solar array to the purchase of open space in town was rejected by the board this week, with officials stating that the funds must be subject to the annual budget process.

Beauregard had hoped to pass an ordinance dedicating at least 80 percent of the $271,950 annual payment from the 38-megawatt solar farm, completed last year, to the acquisition of property to be used for recreation by town residents.

“When Mr. Zwolenski and I supported that solar farm up on Iron Mine, we had one thing in mind,” Beauregard said at a meeting last Wednesday. “The money from that project was going to go toward purchase of the Gold Forest and the upkeep of the Gold Forest.”

The reference to the scenic, 112-acre Mattity Road lot known as Gold Forest led to some dispute last week among the council members. Beauregard and other town officials had negotiated a deal to purchase the land during a previous stint on the board in 2018. But he failed to secure reelection in 2019, and has noted that the purchase effort did not have the support of those who took power.

“We did support purchase of the property,” said Councilor Paul Vadenais on Wednesday. “We actually drafted a purchase and sales agreement. He never accepted it.”

But those familiar with the events of 2018 – and negotiations with then property owner David Gold – might find the councilor’s statement somewhat misleading. At the time, the town had secured a $400,000 grant for the open space purchase from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Gold spoke extensively with NRI NOW about what took place during an executive session meeting led by Vadenais after Beauregard left office, describing the offer as an insult prior to his death in 2020. The process had left the late property owner somewhat bitter toward town officials, but he expressed an ongoing desire to make the land – a historic parcel featuring miles of well-maintained hiking trails – accessible to town residents. In 2020, he briefly opened the private lot to visitors amid pandemic restrictions.

Gold said his later effort to establish solar on the lot was the direct result of that, “offensive,” purchase offer, a statement he also made repeatedly on social media.

“If people want to see what really happened you can search it out on Facebook pages,” Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski said in response to Vadenais’s portrayal. “The Gold family has been frustrated by the town’s efforts.”

Beauregard told NRI NOW last week that he is interested in trying to reopen negotiations for the property, a sentiment repeated last week by the town administrator.

“If Mrs. Gold was amenable to having a discussion with me and anybody else on the council who wishes – I think this would be a jewel in northern Rhode Island’s open space,” Zwolenski said. “It was a godsend for people who had COVID cabin fever.”

“You think that you’re in New Hampshire,” Zwolenski added of the lot. “I would hope that the Gold family would consider this. This would be a phenomenal capture. Hopefully we can buy open space and leave to our kids and our grandkids.”

Beauregard’s initiative last week was not limited to the less-then-certain purchase of the Gold lot, and Zwolenski also expressed support for the plan as a whole.

“Right now, I thinks it’s the best scenario to take those funds and to use them toward open space,” Zwolenski said of the solar money.

Vadenais, however, said that the money received from Green Energy is required to go through the regular budget process, and Councilor Kimberly Alves agreed.

“We have to account for our revenue,” said Vadenais, noting that the funding is different from a PILOT – or payment in lieu of tax – program. “That’s how Lincoln does it with the casino.”

“You can’t make an ordinance out of what you’re going to do with your tax revenue,” Vadenais said.

“It has to be part of the budget process,” agreed Alves. “We can’t say every year we’re going to have that exact amount hitting that capital line. Until we have the whole budget process and know where we stand, we can’t just have that number and work around it.”

Finance Director Cynthia DeJesus said she hoped to speak with neighboring communities about the question of dedicating money annually to an account, but that she believed the councilors’ assessment might be accurate.

“We can still earmark it in the budget,” Vadenais said.

Beauregard was less than satisfied with the answer.

“It’s not committed that way,” he said of the budgeting process. “The next guy comes along and says, ‘I don’t care about open space.'”

“If you put this money in the general fund, it’s gone,” said Beauregard. “It’s going to get swallowed up. Forget about it getting used to purchase open space.”

Resident Richard Keene said he remains hopeful councilors can figure out the logistics.

“I’m 100 percent behind putting money aside for open space in some way,” said Keene, adding of the properties. “Once they’re developed, they’re gone.”

Alves said the council could always put the end-of-year surplus into an open space account while also pursuing grant funding.

“That way, it’s not all coming out of our pocket,” she said.

Still much discussion remained focused on what Beauregard said was a missed opportunity.

“It’s a shame that you guys did not buy that property now, because we cleared out all that forest and we put up a huge solar farm – for what?” he said. “To put a couple hundred thousand dollars a year in the general fund? That was not the intention behind it. You guys lost a huge opportunity when you didn’t buy this land when we should have.”

Vadenais said he and Ezovski told Gold he could always donate the land to the town or the North Smithfield Land Trust.

“He didn’t want to hear it,” Vadenais said.

“The man has the right to make a profit,” Beauregard answered.

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