Community split on garden proposal

Community split on garden proposal

An empty lot on the corner of Arnold and Milton Avenues off Smithfield Road was one of two sites proposed for a community garden earlier this week. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

NORTH SMITHFIELD – A proposal to establish a community garden on unused public land is up for consideration, and the idea drew both support and pushback when it was recommended to the Town Council Monday night.

Megan Staples, a newly appointed member of the town Planning Board, appeared before the council on Monday to pitch the idea for the first time. Staples is involved with a community group called Engage North Smithfield and told councilors the group was interested in leasing land from the town to establish a garden for communal use. While details on parcel allotment and other policies have yet to be hammered out in a formal lease – an agreement Staples said she would be happy to draw up if councilors wish to seriously consider the proposal – the idea, she said, has generated significant interest among members of Engage North Smithfield and other residents.

“There are a lot of things within the town that are focused on the kids and sports, which are great, but it also would be nice to have a community garden where adults could come together (and) learn from different generations about gardening and food preservation,” she said.

Staples named two sites – both owned by the town – as areas of interest by the organization. The first, a lot on the corner of Arnold and Milton Avenues in a residential neighborhood off Smithfield Road, has stood vacant since the town removed playground equipment several years ago. The second, a small playground on St. Paul Street, sits unknown to and unused by many residents in a lot near St. Paul Church.

Councilors were tentatively supportive of the idea of a garden but raised concerns about the specific locations. Councilor Douglas Osier Jr. questioned how the organization would provide parking for the St. Paul Street site, which has no parking lot. Councilor Paul Zwolenski, without providing details, hinted one or both of the sites may be up for consideration for a sale to a third party that he could not disclose at this time.

“I commend the community garden aspect, it’s a great idea, but I just want folks to be cognizant that there are areas in town that are being considered. And again, I want to reiterate, it may or may not be this site,” he said.

Staples acknowledged the town may choose to sell the properties to generate extra revenue but argued a garden would provide intangible benefits that tax money could not. As part of the project, she said, the organization would seek to make the garden accessible to older town residents who could pass on their knowledge of gardening to younger residents.

“For the amount of revenue that they would generate for the town, (selling the lots) doesn’t really make sense when the town could identify ways to use them that would be for the enjoyment of the town,” she said.

Anthony Guertin, chairman of the town’s Parks and Recreation Commission, also raised concerns about the proposed locations. Though he agreed the vacant town lots do not currently serve the interests of residents, he proposed the lots should be improved for active recreation or sold to generate funds for recreation projects already under discussion. These include a proposed “trike park” at Bushee Park behind the Municipal Annex – a project that never came to fruition, despite receiving a $53,440 Department of Environmental Management grant in 2016 – and improvements to the high school athletic complex.

“These parcels are listed on the town website as playgrounds. They shouldn’t be,” he said. “So let’s bring them back to where they should be or let’s divest ourselves of them and fund the projects we’ve identified as a town and we’ve all discussed that are really vital to parks and recreation.”

Guertin proposed the grounds of Halliwell Elementary School, set to be decommissioned in June, as an alternate location for the garden, though Staples said the site was not ideal given the group’s planned timeline within the next year.

He also raised concerns that the town would be held liable for the cost of improving the lots to meet the needs of a garden. Staples assured councilors the cost of maintenance would not fall to the town and promised to return with further details on the proposed lease agreement in the coming weeks.

Comments

The article states: “Councilor Paul Zwolenski, without providing details, hinted one or both of the sites may be up for consideration for a sale to a third party that he could not disclose at this time.” I find Mr. Zwolenski’s comments interesting. Does anyone know if the Town Council has discussed the potential sale of town owned lots at a Town Council meeting? Lauren, have you heard this discussed at a public meeting?
Mike Clifford

We cant even agree to put a shovel in the ground on an empty lot to enhance culture and residents.

First: A garden site would require water installation. Timeline aside, I agree with Mr. Guertin that Halliwell makes the perfect location. It has water, parking, and room to grow. The town could even allocate space in one or more of the better buildings still viable there. You could easily knock most of the buildings down and create a sort of a community involvement center there with very little investment.

Second: I would implore the TC to be more open and honest about what plans are on the table for all town owned land. Many of our zoning laws are designed to prevent an increase in population density yet the Milton/Arnold plot is on the table for sale. The most likely use would be a home built there which would increase density in one of North Smithfield's most densely populated neighborhoods.