Political Scene: Former R.I. lawmaker mired in battle over ’tunnel muck’
Credit: Katherine Gregg, Journal Political Writer | Providence Journal | Apr 5, 2020 | www.providencejournal.com ~~
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A doozy of a fight played out at a Rhode Island State House hearing just before the pandemic shut down this year’s legislative session. It involved:
Arsenic-laced “tunnel muck.”
An alleged move by a once powerful state lawmaker to acquire property along the East Providence waterfront to build a hotel on land that the quasi public state agency he heads is now seeking to take by eminent domain.
The potential derailment of a multi-million dollar investment by Boston-based developers seeking to build a deep-water port to serve as a staging area for the construction and shipment of turbines for the booming wind farm industry.
It all came together on a Tuesday in March when the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a bill to stop the Narragansett Bay Commission – headed by former Rep. Vincent Mesolella – from seizing a big chunk of the East Providence waterfront for use as “a dump” for its tunnel muck.
Unbeknownst to anyone with big, starry-eyed plans for the East Providence waterfront, the quasi-public state agency headed by Mesolella sought State Properties Committee’s approval to seize 45-plus acres of this property by eminent domain.
For what use? As Mesolella explained it to lawmakers at the March 10 House hearing:
The property is needed as a repository for the “tunnel muck” unearthed during the next phase of a $1.5-billion underground tunnel-building project for the storage of sewer overflows – and other pollutants – during rainstorms.
“There are, of course, other options,’’ said Mesolella, the chairman of the agency overseeing this massive “combined sewer overflow” project.
”We could take this tunnel muck to a desert in Nevada and we can bury it there. But of course that adds to the cost,’’ he said.
Even shipping “the muck” to the state landfill would cost an additional $30 million to $35 million, he said.
“That of course will have to be passed on to the ratepayers,’’ he said.
The NBC’s (now stalled) attempt to condemn the property so enraged city officials in East Providence – who say they had no advance notice of what the NBC was up to – they asked the legislature to intervene.
The bill the House Judiciary was considering on March 10 would prohibit the bay commission from using its condemnation powers to take “any property” in the East Providence Waterfront Special Development District without approval of the mayor and the East Providence Waterfront Commission.
At the very least, the NBC misled the State Properties Committee, Michael Donegan, a lawyer for the current property owners, told the House committee.
On its application to the State Properties Committee for approval to take the property, Donegan said, the NBC was, in effect, asked: “Did you speak to the city?“
“On NBC’s application, they represented that they did when they, in fact, had not,’’ Donegan alleged.
Had city officials not gotten wind, at the last minute, of what was on the State Properties Committee’s Jan. 21 meeting, Donegan said, the committee would have heard only one side.
“They hear from the NBC only and if they grant it, the next step is a couple of conversations with us and if that doesn’t work … the property is gone.“
The 45 acres known as the South Quay (pronounced Key) was once owned by the Providence & Worcester Railroad. It was purchased by RI Waterfront Enterprises LLC in June 2019 for $4.5 million.
Donegan describes RI“We” – as he refers to the company – as an offshoot of Mugar Enterprises, a Boston-based family business with a development history, that includes a port they developed and own in St. Croix. He said the managing members are David Ting and Melissa Martin.
“The development is still in its early stages,’’ said city spokeswoman Patricia Resende. In January, however, Commerce RI gave RI Waterfront Enterprises a grant of up to $100,000 “to conduct [a] planning study to analyze the potential for South Quay’’ as a coastal Rhode Island port.
More specifically, the company hopes to develop the property into a deep water port for the offshore wind industry. Donegan said the company has the major players already lined up.
East Providence Mayor Roberto “Bob” DaSilva told the lawmakers: “The development we foresee here in East Providence is going to have wide, wide economic implications not only for East Providence but all of Rhode Island and the region.”
“We’re not trying to blow this up more than what it is [but] this is a once in a lifetime investment by private capital, ready to go … to build a lay down area for the wind farm industry.”
“There’re going to be jobs … high-paying jobs. It’s going to help spur the further development of the waterfront.”
“Then to have another quasi public agency come in, and try to take this without so much as giving us a courtesy phone call or … even notifying the property owners to say that, ’hey, we’re going to take this and we’re going to put material that we’re digging out of the earth that has arsenic on your land…“
Donegan said the Bay Commission move would kill the project.
Even if it didn’t outright kill the project, DaSilva said “the delay that would cause in this development” would be a “black eye to Rhode Island because you are talking about people coming from other states who want to invest in our community.
“They are not asking for any handouts … [or] any special deals,’’ he said. “They want to invest their money in our state and now we have this thing rearing its ugly head.”
In his own turn, Mesolella said it would be “unprecedented to change statutory authority’’ for any one property owner or to put ”a mayor or a town council … over the greater good.“
Moreover, “we already know what the potential use for that property … is going to be,” he said, sketching word images of a park ”very similar to Providence’s India Point Park.”
“We are [not] in the property ownership business. We are not in the port operation business. So one way or another they get this property back,’’ he said.
”The only difference being they are going to get it back in a much better condition than they gave it to us.“
Elaborating, he said: “Once this project is complete, we are required by statute to offer it back to the previous owner … [and] if he refuses the property, then offer it to the city and then, if both the previous owner and the city refuse, then this property goes to public auction.”
When asked by The Journal if, as whispered the night of the hearing, Mesolella had attempted to purchase any piece of the property before his agency tried to seize it, Donegan said: “Yes.”
He was talking about the same Mesolella who, years back, drained half the water from the two-mile-long Pascoag Reservoir.
As The Journal reported at the time: “Mesolella, one of the most powerful figures in the General Assembly, says he won’t refill the picturesque reservoir (also known as Echo Lake) until the state Department of Environmental Management makes a serious response to his offer to sell it to the state for $425,000.”
His later push for public subsidies for a hotel he hoped to develop in downtown Providence, that a Journal editorial writer dubbed “Hotel Vinny,’’ was vetoed by then-Governor Lincoln Almond. The legislature overrode the veto.
Donegan said Mesolella “approached RI Waterfront Enterprises [last year] when it was under contract with P&W with the unusual suggestion, not that he purchase it, but that the purchase agreement be simply assigned to him and his family real estate business, for the purpose of building a hotel on the property.
“We were just scratching our heads, like ’what are you talking about?’ This is like clearly a port. It’s not like a resort area. I mean the Sprague oil terminal … is right there. The oil tankers pull up and unload there.”
“The puzzling suggestion was rejected out of hand,’’ Donegan said.
“But Vinny and then his son, Derek, continued to pursue this with us, then following repeated rejections, the next we heard was that the property then inexplicably ended up on an agenda of the State Properties Committee as the subject of a condemnation effort by the Narragansett Bay Commission.“
Mesolella’s version of what happened: “They offered me the property. They approached me to purchase the property. We expressed an interest… We made a direct offer to purchase the property. Someone else bought it. We moved on.”
He also told The Journal last Thursday his conversation with one of the principals at RI Waterfront Enterprises involved another piece of property, “not the property that Narragansett Bay Commission is interested in. It’s the property above it.”
Donegan’s response to Mesolella’s account: “That is factually incorrect.”
“It was Vinny Mesolella who approached my client and ’the ask’ was the purchase and sale agreement, which included all of those properties in the South Quay where he [was] going to build a hotel.”
Check back after the pandemic. The whole shebang is on hold.
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