Editor's note: This is the first in a series of profiles on the four candidates running for an open seat on South Kingstown's Town Council. Profiles will run through the Sept. 10 edition of the South County Independent. A Q&A feature regarding town issues will appear in the Sept. 17 edition.
SOUTH KINGSTOWN — If there’s any indication of James O’Neill’s passion for South Kingstown, his office may be it. He has dedicated an entire room and more to his South Kingstown Town Council campaign, from campaign signs to large piles of documents about local issues.
O’Neill is running as an independent in the Sept. 22 special election, against Democrat Bryant Da Cruz and independents Joël Dargan and Liz Gledhill. He is running on a platform of experience and dedication, as he served on the council from 2000 to 2014 before being defeated in the last election.
“I served on the council for 14 years,” O’Neill said. “I have not stopped. I have not stopped going to council meetings. I have not stopped going to planning and zoning meetings. You only do this if you care about the town, and care about what the town will look like in 10 years, 100 years.”
During his tenure as an elected official, O’Neill said he missed nine of 600 meetings. During that time, the council worked with foresight to improve South Kingstown, from supporting South County Hospital and the University of Rhode Island, to asking state officials to address climate change issues, to creating a Healthy Places by Design designated community, he said.
He was known for being outspoken, and for sparring with former President Kathleen Fogarty – now a state representative – and former President Ella Whaley.
“Yes, we had unbelievable political difficulties [on the council],” O’Neill said. “But this town always came first. We made a great town.”
At the top of O’Neill’s priority list is local governance, which he argues the town is losing. The state constitution grants South Kingstown the ability to maintain control of local issues, but land use regulations, school funding and the local economy are at risk, he said.
“Local governance is number one,” he said. “People live here; they’ve moved here because they like our schools; they like our land, our water; they moved here for those reasons. And those are the reasons you protect.”
O’Neill grew up summering in Green Hill. He graduated from University of Rhode Island and in 1991, he and his wife, Anne, and their two children moved to Green Hill. He owns Coastal Properties South County, a real estate firm, on Main Street in Wakefield.
“I really enjoy South Kingstown,” O’Neill said. “I love what we do with our village plans, our comprehensive plan, because it’s meant to do a little bit of everything: economic growth, historic preservation. I love the mix [in South Kingstown].”
Over the years, O’Neill has seen plenty of changes in the area.
“I’ve had my office [on Main Street] for 20 years, and I’ve seen Wakefield up and down,” he said. “Now I’m really worried, because if you ever interview the stores that leave, it’s the lack of customers, free spending people. We need participation by customers down here. Our Economic Development Committee, they need to figure out how small business can work in our villages.”
O’Neill said to help the economy in South Kingstown, the council needs to support businesses such as South County Hospital, URI and Schneider Electric.
“I think the town has built out most of the easy developable land,” he said. “Right now, what is at stake is, do we lose our neighborhoods? I’m a big fan of our neighborhoods and neighborhood elementary schools. I don’t want to lose Peace Dale and Wakefield, because they’re affordable. I don’t want them to become gentrified, then no one will be able to afford to live here.”
Recently, O’Neill has advocated against several development projects, including the Alzheimer’s care facility proposed for the site of the former Larchwood Inn on Main Street, and the expansion of the cottage community The Pointe at East Matunuck. O’Neill frequently attends Town Council, Planning Board and Zoning Board meetings, and is often the only candidate present.
“No one else running has been to these meetings,” O’Neill said. “I am vigilant; I am dedicated; I am experienced.”