Pawtucket approves deal to pave most of Morley Field, legality remains in question

The City Council had originally agreed to sell the entirety of Morley Field for development into a parking lot, but after it was determined that the sale was illegal under state law, the sale was renegotiated and approved to sell only 60% of the greenspace. Finalizing the sale is dependent on National Parks Service approval.

Rhode Island News: Pawtucket approves deal to pave most of Morley Field, legality remains in question

October 21, 2022, 2:02 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien and the Pawtucket City Council released a misleading press statement on Thursday following Wednesday night’s council vote approving the sale of 60% of Morley Field, the only public green space in the mostly low-income, mostly BIPOC community in the Woodlawn neighborhood, to private developer JK Equities, to be converted into a parking lot. One word used in the press release was “compromise,” a word that even the city council members who helped work out the deal agreed was not quite accurate during Wednesday night’s hearing.

The City Council had originally agreed to sell the entirety of Morley Field for development into a parking lot, but after it was determined that the sale was illegal under state law, the sale was renegotiated and approved to sell only 60% of the greenspace.

“We definitely needed some green space in [District 5],” admitted Pawtucket City Councilmember Michael Araujo in a long, rambling defense of the sale at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. “That’s why I think this is – I thought that was a compromise, at least from my POV because I was all about, well, let’s get the jobs going so… maybe we can turn those poverty numbers around.”

The “compromise” was reached only after it was shown by City Councilmember Clovis Gregor that the sale of on one of the two lots that make up Morley Field was illegal, since that portion of the green space had been donated to the city. There was never any consideration of a “compromise” before that point.

Councilmember Araujo’s contention that the business that JK Equity is planning will bring jobs to the neighborhood is also open to doubt. After Wednesday night’s council meeting Araujo admitted, in conversation with Coalition Radio’s Pat Ford, that under the terms of the agreement with JK Equity, the company will give “first priority” to employing Pawtucket residents. There is no guarantee other than good faith that the company will hire Pawtucket residents. There are no penalties the city can impose if JK Equities does not hire Pawtucket residents.

During the Pawtucket City Council Property Committee meeting, held shortly before the full council meeting, the deal between the City of Pawtucket and JK Equities was referred to as a Public Private Partnership, though it is unclear how the public will benefit from a partnership that supplies no guarantees to the city in terms of jobs. At the same Property Committee hearing it was noted that JK Equities is paying the same price for 60% of Morley Field that they were willing to pay for 100% of the field under the previous deal leading one to imagine that the company might have offered more for the field than the city originally settled for.

Finalizing the sale is dependent on National Parks Service (NPS) approval. Since NPS gave the city the money needed to create Morley Field in the first place, NPS will have to be satisfied that the City of Pawtucket has created viable greenspace replacements for Morley Field of equal or greater value. Right now, the City has made no effort to create a similar or better public greenspace in the Woodlawn neighborhood, but has entered into an agreement to double the size of a greenspace in a neighboring, whiter, more affluent community. It remains to be seen if NPS will take into account the environmental racism inherent in the sale and destruction of Morley Field. Pawtucket’s Director of Planning Bianca Policastro estimated the NPS decision may take 1-2 years.

Director Poilicastro also said that the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is “on board” with the sale and paving of Morley Field, a statement DEM’s Public Affairs Officer Michael Healey called “an inaccurate description of DEM’s role in and position on this process… To be as clear as we can possibly be, the only thing that DEM is on board with is following the correct process to the letter of the law.”

DEM went on to say:

“We’re involved in this matter in three ways: recreational conversion, wetlands, and soil quality.

The City of Pawtucket submitted an application to DEM to alter wetlands at Morley Field. This is required because DEM regulates wetlands. We cannot consider the City’s application complete, however, because sequentially, first the City must provide documentation that a recreational conversion plan has been approved by both DEM and the National Park Service (NPS) (please see attached letter). As Uprise RI has been accurately reporting, Morley Field was built in part with US Department of Interior Land and Water Conservation Funds [doi.gov] obtained through DEM for outdoor recreational purposes. Therefore, under the property’s current designation, DEM is responsible for ensuring Morley Field remains in outdoor recreation use. Before DEM’s Freshwater Wetlands Program begins any technical review of the City’s alteration application, the City must submit a recreational conversion application that must be approved by DEM and NPS. To date, DEM has not received this application.

Re: soil quality: The developer’s environmental consultant took soil samples, got them tested, the report showed contamination, and this process has involved DEM. The site is now in DEM’s site remediation program. 

According to Land and Water Conservation Act rules, DEM must request NPS to review the conversion request. Obviously, the City first must provide DEM with a variety of materials that articulate why a conversion is justified.

We have never seen the City’s P+S agreement, nor should we have seen it. Our only concern is the use of the property. On this point, we do not have the City’s proposal justifying the conversion in hand and we will not be processing any permit applications or other regulatory approvals based on site use other than for recreational purposes until the NPS approves the conversion of this property, which involves the approval of a suitable replacement.

The entire issue of Morley Field could have been settled at Wednesday night’s Pawtucket City Council hearing had one additional member voted against the sale. The vote in the end was 5-4 in favor. Four of the votes in favor came from those loyal to Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien: Council President David Moran (District 1) and Councilmembers Terrence Mercer (District 3), Michael Araujo (at Large) and Mark Wildehaim (District 2). Four votes against the development came from people more concerned about the residents of Woodlawn, that is, Councilmembers Clovis Gregor (District 5), Melissa DaRosa (at Large), Alexis Schuette (District 4) and Elena Vasquez (at Large).

The deciding vote was cast by Councilmember Marlena Martins Stachowiak (District 6). For many meetings Councilmember Stachowiak, a relatively new member of the council, has declared that she is innocent of casting any votes in favor of the sale of Morley Field.

“I wasn’t here for the original vote, the original proposal,” said Councilmember Stachowiak at Wednesday’s meeting, repeating something she had said over many meetings. During the hearing Councilmember Stachowiak talked about her commitment to creating jobs in Pawtucket, but she also seemed moved by the argument made by Councilmember DaRosa to base her decision on whether or not she would be willing to get rid of the only greenspace in the 6th District, which Councilmember Stachowiak represents. Based on her vote, Councilmember Stachowiak would have no problem paving over greenspace in her district, or anywhere else in Pawtucket. When is came time for Councilmember Stachowiak to vote, she considered for 15 seconds before saying, “Yes.”

Had Councilmember Stachowiak voted “No” Morley Field would have been spared destruction. Instead, the fate of Morley Field now rests with the National Parks Service.

The owners of and lawyer for JK Equity.

11 people provided public testimony in opposition to selling Morley Field. No one testified in favor of destroying the greenspace.

You can watch the entire Pawtucket City Council discussion here.

Those wondering why the Administration of Pawtucket mayor Donald Grebien are so gung ho about selling Morley Field should look at his campaign donations:

More coverage of Morley Field:

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