NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Members of the North Kingstown Town Council gathered virtually last week and heard presentations from both the Economic Development Advisory Board and the Wickford Advisory Committee on the work they’ve been doing and recommendations they have for the town as well as a public hearing on a potential CRMC update to the language of the “Harbors, Wharves and Public Waters” ordinance among other topics during a nearly four hour meeting Mar. 29.
After a declaration of Monday as Vietnam Veterans’ Day in North Kingstown and across Rhode Island by Town Council President Greg Mancini, the virtual floor was given to EDAB Chair Bjorn Wellenius to give a presentation on the work the organization did between 2015 and 2020. The body, which serves as a monitor and advisor to the Town Council on the progress of economic development and other related topics, gave their takes on their work with the town and businesses and how all sides could improve those relationships.
In his presentation, Wellenius pointed to the success they’ve had with the Town Council and the town in general on such issues as reviewing the RFP for the Wickford El redevelopment, working with the Wickford Plan Committee on parking and helping to form the Wickford Advisory Committee, which in part spun off of their previous Wickford EDAB, as well as supporting the town’s initiative to reduce plastic bag usage and the application for a grant for a new playground at the town beach.
“In some cases it was clear that the EDAB made a significant difference in a short time,” Wellenius said. “More generally, however, the EDAB added value by contributing to the material being considered by decision makers.”
Currently, EDAB is working on the Wickford Walking Workshop and location of the rune stone as an extension of the old library park, the town government’s role in economic development and matrix of support functions and creating a public forum for information, questions and follow up on the Wickford El proposal while also laying groundwork to support economic development over the next several years particularly around Post Road, which they hope to do by engaging with the community to see how they would like to see the stretch of road revitalized. Additionally, Wellenius said they had been identifying unused town-owned properties with economic development potential, estimating there were probably still about 100 such sites they could work with.
Looking back at what they’ve learned over the past six years, Wellenius said he felt that EDAB has played an overall useful role in town and that their small, frequent contributions are effective while the impact of larger projects, such as Wickford El, are so far unclear. However, he did note a disconnect between EDAB and the Town Council.
“There is a disconnect between the EDAB and the Council to which it reports,” Wellenius said, reading from the report. “The EDAB’s work agenda has largely been shaped by its own views of what needed to be done in support of economic development. Seldom has the Town Council or town management and staff taken the lead. Major EDAB products have not been critically reviewed and evaluated for official approval or acceptance. Limited or slow implementation raises the question of whether the EDAB’s initiatives are in line with the Council’s views of the future.”
Mancini agreed with the notion, and encouraged the EDAB members to reach out to him or any of the other councilors at any time with concerns they may have while expressing interest in working more on maintaining and encouraging commuter growth at Wickford Junction along the MBTA Providence Stoughton Line and creating another workshop in the near future as soon as larger crowds are able to gather regarding the growth of the town and businesses on Post Road.
“It doesn’t seem as though anybody wants to move there,” Councilor Kerry McKay said in terms of businesses coming to the corridor, noting most new businesses were coming to town to be at Quonset Point and that they’d need to work on striking a balance between the development at the two locations.
McKay also asked the members of EDAB if they felt more connected with the Town Council when they had a liason, to which Wellenius and Palmer Beebe said yes.
Immediately following the presentation and discussion, attention turned over the WAC Chair Mike Donahue and his presentation on traffic, pedestrian safety and bridge weight limit issues in Wickford Village, laying out the seven recommendations the committee had for the Town Council to bring to the attention of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.
Firstly, the WAC is calling for a “No Thru Trucks/Local Deliveries Only” zone in the Wickford Village Historic District, saying such vehicles cut through the village at high speeds and often ignore the weight limit on the Brown Street bridge meant to prevent them from being there in the first place, and that such signs should be placed at all entrances to Wickford Village. The WAC also said they want to see “more prominent and accurate” bridge identifier and weight limit signs on all of the bridges in and around the village to clear up confusion between the Brown Street and Hussey Bridges as well as try to prevent large trucks from entering the village by posting more prominent weight limit warning signs.
Additionally, the WAC wants to see the speed limit for the whole Wickford Village Historic District lowered to 20 miles per hour and see both the North Kingstown and Rhode Island State Police more strongly enforce the speed and weight limits of the village while installing raised crosswalks at West Main Street, Main Street and Brown Street, which they said will encourage slower traffic to better protect pedestrians.
They also want to see the town work with RIDOT to update commercial GPS routing system software to get the new weight warnings posted and ask the Wickford Merchants to work with their distributors and encourage them to use smaller trucks while travelling through the village.
The Town Council also held a Second Reading on the changing of the language to the “Harbors, Wharves and Public Waters” ordinance at the behest of the CRMC, particularly in regards to the prohibition of swimming in the mooring fields, language which had initially been put in place in 2000 but removed locally according to Harbor Management Commission Chair Barbara Ray, but that the organization is having them put the language back in.
McKay called the move by the CRMC an attempt by the state to implement more control over local public waters, pointing to the fact that the new language also changes the term “public” to “state-owned” in reference to the waters in and around the moorings and marinas.
“I think the taxpayers and the voters need to be protected here,” McKay said. “Public property is public property.”
Town Manager Ralph Mollis said they should share the concerns brought forward by citizens regarding the swimming ban to the CRMC to get further clarification from them, with Ray noting they have until Nov. 25 to give them a response.
Elsewhere in the meeting, all items on the consent agenda passed unanimously. The only contested vote was a 3-2 party line vote to approve a request by the Arts Council and Nancy Rafi to install a temporary garden flag memorial on the grounds of the Old Town Meeting House to honor the 66 victims of COVID-19 from North Kingstown with pictures, names, ages and death dates as well as a bio of the victim, which would only be done with permission of their families.
“We need the ability to be able to mourn for folks and that’s what this is,” Councilor Kim Page said.
Mancini said he’s heard concerns that such a memorial may be premature while the pandemic is still occurring and was not sure there would be enough space for it, which Mollis later informed him there is, and that he could see both sides of the argument.
McKay apologized to Rafi, who’s previous work he said he always supported, but said he couldn’t vote to support something he thought could be “celebrating COVID,” noting that he felt the town should also honor those who died from cancer, the flu and other causes during the past year if they were honoring the victims of COVID-19. Councilor Mary Brimer said she also felt the memorial was premature, especially in the case if the pandemic takes a turn for the worse in the coming months, and asked if they could do a display in one of the town cemeteries, saying that any display could potentially interrupt work going on around the facility and need to be moved.
In the end, Mancini said he supported the work by Rafi to do something for the community and it passed on party lines as he was joined by fellow Democrats Page and Katie Anderson in voting yes while Republicans McKay and Brimer voted no.
In the final vote of the evening, McKay and Page were appointed to serve as Town Council liaisons for the town’s upcoming collective bargaining negotiations with Local 1033, RI Laborers’ International Union of North America, AFL-CIO and International Brotherhood of Police Officers, Local 473.