Battle over open space in North Providence

Real estate
By STEVEN STYCOS  |  May 27, 2009

Will the last large piece of open space in North Providence turn into the site of 47 single family homes? That decision currently rests with the Rhode Island General Assembly and the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The outcome could jeopardize open space preservation statewide.

North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi and most town leaders want to preserve 15 acres of land on Wenscott Lake that abuts Governor John A Notte, Jr. Park. But developer John Petrarca of Generation Realty LLC proposes to turn the property, which currently houses the youth summer camp, Camp Meehan, into private homes.

Last year, legislation to allow the town to seize the land by eminent domain passed the state Senate, but failed in the House of Representatives, prompting suspicions of insider political deals. Petrarca's son is a state representative and his hired consultant is former North Providence state Representative Vincent Mesolella. Petrarca also donates generously to political campaigns. Since 2007, according to the Rhode Island Board of Elections records, Petrarca contributed $18,700 to Rhode Island candidates, including $2000 to House Speaker William Murphy (D-West Warwick), $1000 to House Majority Leader Gordon Fox (D-Providence), and $600 to Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport).

His son, state Representative Peter Petrarca (D-Lincoln), is the registered agent for Generation Realty LLC and recused himself from deliberations over the bill.

This year, the House passed the eminent domain bill, but the Senate has not. The elder Petrarca, however, who is also the owner of Providence Auto Body Inc., says he is disinterested in the legislation, because the Rhode Island Supreme Court will decide the property's future. About 10 years ago, when North Providence rezoned Camp Meehan from residential to open space as part of its comprehensive plan revision, Petrarca says, it violated state law by advertising the plan change in the newspaper and not individually notifying property owners. In February, Superior Court Judge Patricia Hurst agreed. North Providence's appeal of her decision is pending at the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

A loss for the town would have a "devastating effect statewide," Lombardi warns, because open space in other towns that was rezoned in a similar way could be declared open to development.

If the Supreme Court agrees the property is zoned residential, Petrarca says, it will cost the town about $3.5 million to seize by eminent domain from the current owner, Providence based non-profit Capital Cities Community Centers.

"Yeah, OK," responds Lombardi, who puts the property's value at $500,000 as open space.

"Fifteen acres on a lake?" Petrarca asked in disbelief.

In 2006, Lincoln purchased 82 acres of open space adjoining Camp Meehan from Capital Cities for $3.2 million. Lombardi's predecessor, current Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, declined to buy the North Providence portion of the land and Capital Cities made an agreement with Petrarca.

Lombardi vows to do everything he can to protect the property and charges that Petrarca is "trying to make a quick score." Petrarca counters that a personal dispute with Lombardi, which he declined to explain, prevented a settlement years ago. Now he promises a fight until the Supreme Court rules. "Someone will be standing," he predicts, "and someone will be down."

"I don't know what he's talking about," Lombardi responded when asked about the personal dispute. "Mr. Petrarca's problem is he's used to pushing people around and he's not going to push Charlie Lombardi around."

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