NORTH KINGSTOWN – On the map, North Kingstown is often abbreviated as No. Kingstown. But residents here joke that “No Kingstown” really refers to the town’s history of feisty opposition to unwanted development.
In the past 20 years, North Kingstown community groups successfully opposed a container port, an incinerator and a drag-racing strip at Quonset Point. There was a fierce fight in the 1990s over retail development near the intersection of Routes 4 and 102, particularly a proposed Wal-Mart.
The town’s “just say no” reputation didn’t arrive out of thin air. The battle against Wal-Mart, which was ultimately built, was waged by the No-Mart Coalition. The fight against the container port was spearheaded by the No Port Coalition.
“We got on the map because of the fight against the container port,” said Elizabeth Dolan, president of the North Kingstown Town Council.
North Kingstown’s reputation for opposition to development projects has its roots in past successes, the fierce determination of old-timers and newcomers alike to maintain the town’s rural character, and a location that makes it attractive to commerce.
Now, there are two more battles, one over a mixed residential-commercial development at the former Rolling Greens golf course on Route 102, the other over a 427-foot wind turbine proposed by a private developer for Stamp Farm on Route 2.
The turbine controversy drew about 350 people, many of them property owners in the area, to a Jan. 4 hearing before the Planning Commission. Commission Chairman Richard Pastore said it was the largest turnout he could remember for such a hearing.
State Rep. Laurence Ehrhardt, R-North Kingstown, an opponent of the Stamp Farm turbine, evoked at the hearing the successful opposition to the container port.
“Back then, forces outside the community were trying to impose something on North Kingstown that we didn’t want,” he said. “Not since those times have I seen the level of passion and enthusiasm that I’m seeing now.”
Ehrhardt said the success of the battle against the container port has left a legacy of community activism.
Now, he said, the Internet has made it easier for opposition groups to conduct research and gather like-minded members. “They’re feisty, they’re vocal, they’re all online,” he said.
But Ehrhardt said he’s not a fan of the “No Kingstown” label, pointing out that the push-and-pull between development and open space is happening all over the state, not just in North Kingstown. “We’re primarily a residential community, and people like to see that atmosphere maintained,” he said.
He said North Kingstown is not opposed to economic development, as long as it’s in the right place. Mostly, he said, that’s at the Quonset Business Park.
Pastore said North Kingstown has become a focal point for development battles because the very factors that make it attractive to residents –– open space and easy access to highways –– also make it attractive to commerce.
“Part of the resistance to development is because so many people want to come here to develop,” he said.
Another reason North Kingstown has been the focus of so many well-publicized battles, Pastore said, is the presence of the former Navy base at Quonset Point, a magnet for economic development plans both good and bad.
“Every 10 years, someone comes along with a hare-brained scheme that can’t work,” he said.
Planning Director Jonathan Reiner said the very people who come to North Kingstown for open space and privacy become unwitting agents of change. “Every time a new house goes up, the character [of the area] changes a little,” he said.
Colin O’Sullivan, a native of Britain, is active in the opposition to both the Stamp Farm turbine and the Rolling Greens development.
He said he searched diligently for a place to live in Rhode Island that was not surrounded by development, and chose North Kingstown. “You pay the price to get what you want,” he said.
O’Sullivan is particularly unhappy about anyone who tries to circumvent the town’s Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2008.
“People representing the town took six or seven years developing a Comprehensive Plan, which was very clear about where development should be,” he said. “Then, developers come along, they find open space, and they think they can go to the Town Council and get it to change the Comprehensive Plan to suit their own financial ambitions.”