Corrigan Continues Assault on Fire District Merger

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Town Manager Gayle Corrigan (left) presented another chapter to her look back at the 2013 merger of the East Greenwich Fire District into a town department, continuing her argument that it took place without due diligence and with grave financial consequences for the town. (Find her report here.)

As she has done several times in the months since she’s been town manager, Corrigan said the fire department was too expensive and needed to be fixed.

Her solution: restructure the department into three platoons that work 56 hours a week from the current four platoons and 42-hour work week. The town has sued the firefighters to be able to impose the restructure immediately; firefighters say they have a valid contract until 2019.

Corrigan’s report, while repeating arguments made in earlier reports, did take more exact aim at some of the people in charge in recent years. In particular, she cited what she said was the inexperience of former Town Manager Tom Coyle, former Town Solicitor Peter Clarkin and former Fire Chief Russ McGillivray in negotiating contracts.

However, Coyle served as police chief before becoming town manager and negotiated contracts in that position; Clarkin negotiated several rounds of contracts for three unions during his tenure in East Greenwich before adding the firefighter contract; McGillivray came from the larger West Warwick Fire Department and served as deputy chief in EG for three years before becoming chief. McGillivray and Coyle both hold master’s degrees in public administration.

Corrigan questioned the increase in the number of “service calls” (i.e. miscellaneous calls) between 2013 and 2014 (when the district became a department). As she said, the increase was due to the decision to classify alarm box resets as service calls.

In a phone interview Thursday, McGillivray (who took over as chief in 2013) offered this explanation for the classification change: “We were just trying to account for the hours and the work that the fire department was doing. When we went from the fire district to the fire department, I saw that social services and police department were very data driven and I wanted to get a better accounting of the work we actually did.”

Meanwhile, the total number of incident calls (including service calls) has risen steadily in recent years.  Even if service calls are subtracted, the fire department had more than 1,000 additional incidents in 2017 than it had in 2006, the year the fire district topped out at 36 total firefighters. In 2006 there were 2,386 incidents; in 2017, there were 4,121 (665 of them classified as service calls).

Corrigan also highlighted a jump in rescue billing rates between 2015 and 2016, but said she had not yet looked into the cause for the increases.

Former Fire Chief John McKenna (who served as chief from 2005 to 2010) was at the meeting Monday and during public comment he said that spike came after the billing company – Comstar – went from using a base rate and subcategories in its billing charges (for instance, separating out fees for starting an IV or using oxygen) to having one blended cost. McKenna, who now works in private industry, said the change was for all Comstar clients, public and private. McGillivray gave the same explanation Thursday.

In her report, Corrigan spoke about raises, saying some firefighters got a 48 percent raise in the current contract, while everyone else in town got 2 percent raises.

According to firefighter union president Bill Perry, the firefighters got a 2 percent raise like everyone else but he acknowledged that six so-called lateral transfers (firefighters hired from other departments) were given the salary of a second-year firefighter instead of a first-year firefighter, which came out to about $3 more per hour for those six firefighters (a 2 percent raise that year would have been in the range of 50 cents an hour).

He said he did not know where Corrigan got the 48 percent figure.

During public comment Monday, Perry urged the council to talk to other municipalities where they have put in a three-platoon system. There have been four.

In North Kingstown, town officials imposed a three-platoon system that was fought extensively and expensively in the courts; firefighters there lost after it was ruled they did not have a valid contract. A three-platoon system was also imposed in Providence, but the city abandoned it after years of litigation and went back to a four-platoon system. The city had to pay Providence firefighters several million dollars in overtime accrued during the three-platoon, 56-hour work weeks. Tiverton and Central Coventry Fire District also have three-platoon systems – Tiverton’s through negotiation and Central Coventry’s was imposed after that district went bankrupt. Corrigan runs Central Coventry.

“Do your due diligence. We have an active contract,” said Perry. “I would hope that everybody would be adults and sit down instead of having attorneys become wealthy off the community. Nobody benefits from that.”

“Bill, we’d be happy to sit down,” Council President Sue Cienki said.

The last attempt to negotiate failed in December; both sides blamed the other side.

Corrigan said she would present “phase one” of her restructuring plan at the April 9 Town Council meeting.



 

Density, Historic House Still Problems for So. Pierce Condo Plan

The back of the house includes additions that are in particularly bad shape, according to an engineer working for the developer.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Developer Tom Primeau and his team were back before the Planning Board with a revised 14-unit condominium development for the McKenna property at 62 South Pierce Road. Originally, Primeau’s company – Philip Ryan Homes LLP – had proposed 22 units for the site. After initial negative feedback from the town, the developer came back in August dropping the number of condo units to 16.

“Right from the beginning, when this was the 21 units, my comments were it was too much,” said Planning Board Vice Chair Jason Gomez at the Planning Board meeting Dec. 6. “I think we’re going in the right direction.”

Other members agreed, but no one was willing to say they were ready to support the plan, citing both the density of the project and the demolition of the only house on the property, a farmhouse dating to 1705 that is in a serious state of disrepair.

The 14 units exceeds the 10 to 12 units Primeau would be eligible for if the plan were going through the regular review process. But Primeau has applied for a Comprehensive Permit, which is a fast-track for developers who include a higher percentage of affordable units*. Primeau is proposing 4 of the 14 units would be in the affordable category (10 percent affordable is the typical requirement). A Comprehensive Permit application bypasses the Zoning Board, the Town Council and, in this case, the Historic District Commission, with final approval coming from the Planning Board alone – but a Planning Board imbued with the powers of the other boards.

To say no to the proposal, however, is hard, since East Greenwich’s affordable housing percentage sits at 4.6, which would give the developer leverage on appeal.

As at the three previous public hearings on the plan, called Coggeshall Preserve, neighbors were out in force. Many continue to object to the scale of the buildings. In a neighborhood of largely modest, single-story houses, the development includes four new multi-unit buildings along with a plan to rebuild the historic house on the property, parcelling it up into three condominiums. Under the latest plan, three of the four affordable units would be located in the “new” old house, which could run afoul of the town’s Comprehensive Plan**, which calls for affordable units to be scattered not clustered.

The new plan does make some accommodations for neighbors in addition to the drop from 16 to 14 units. In particular, the three-unit building off Taylor Circle at the south end of the property has been moved farther back from the property line, which happens to sit uncomfortably close to one of the houses on Taylor Circle house.

While the new plan includes demolition of the McKenna house, which dates back to 1705, it calls stabilizing its architecturally significant chimney and building the new structure on the original footprint. The house has been neglected for years and the developer has argued that it is too far gone to be saved.

The Historic District Commission issued an advisory opinion at the request of the Planning Board earlier this fall. (In normal circumstances, the HDC would have jurisdiction but because of the Comprehensive Permit, it can only advise.) It said the house should not be torn down, noting that it was one of the oldest houses in this part of Rhode Island.

At its Dec. 6 meeting, the Planning Board decided to ask the HDC to weigh in the latest proposal, which it will do at its meeting Jan. 10.

Anyone who buys the property will need to deal with potentially extensive and expensive environmental mitigation. The McKennas, who still own the property, allowed a variety of dumping on the property over the years. At some point, the state Dept. of Environmental Management filed a notice of intent to enforce the regulations. That’s a step before filing a violation but it just sits there until the owner either cleans up the damage or sells the property.

“The DEM is excited for the opportunity to deal with past problems,” said Town Planner Lisa Bourbonnais Monday.

*By state law, municipalities are supposed to have 10 percent of their housing stock in the affordable category. East Greenwich’s affordable percentage is 4.6 percent. To reach 10 percent, East Greenwich would need to add 290 units, according to HousingWorksRI. (Affordable housing is not the same as low- to moderate-income housing. Rather, for home ownership, it is calculated to serve people who make less than 120 percent of the median income for, in this case, Kent County.) The state created the Comprehensive Permit application to help fast-track developments that include affordable housing units since so many communities fall short of the 10 percent goal.

** A lengthy document that outlines the town’s goals and aspirations in terms of development.

Planning Board Weighs 16-Unit So. Pierce Development, Including 1700s House Demo

The Planning Board is in the middle of reviewing a proposal from East Greenwich developer Tom Primeau, who wants to build 16 condominiums (a collection of duplexes and triplexes) on the 5.4 acre site at 62 South Pierce Road at Cora Street.

The development, called Coggeshall Preserve, is hotly contested by neighbors. The initial public hearing on Primeau’s Comprehensive Permit application, on Aug. 2, was filled with abutting and nearby residents. After Primeau’s development team made its presentation, the public was allowed to comment. The meeting went four hours before the Planning Board finally called a halt just after 11 p.m. because there were several more people who wanted to comment on the development. The board will take up the hearing again at its meeting Sept. 20.

A Comprehensive Permit is allowed when a developer includes units deemed “affordable.” Coggeshall Preserve would include four affordable units. That enables the proposal to bypass the Zoning Board, the Town Council and, in this case, the Historic District Commission, with final approval coming from the Planning Board alone (but a Planning Board imbued with the powers of the other boards).

By state law, municipalities are supposed to have 10 percent of their housing stock in the affordable category. East Greenwich’s affordable percentage is 4.6 percent. To reach 10 percent, East Greenwich would need to add 290 units, according to HousingWorksRI. (Affordable housing is not the same as low- to moderate-income housing. Rather, for home ownership, it is calculated to serve people who make less than 120 percent of the median income for, in this case, Kent County.) The state created the Comprehensive Permit application to help fast-track developments that include affordable housing units since so many communities fall short of the 10 percent goal.

The town’s Staff Report (find it here: Planning Dept. Staff Report – 62South Pierce) notes that several of the planned residences are on federally designated floodplain areas and that “local regulations call for all lands designated as floodplain or other flood hazard area to remain in an open space or undeveloped state.” Primeau’s team is seeking a floodplain map amendment through FEMA but the staff report recommends the developer be prepared to reduce the number of units if he does not get a map amendment.

In addition, the Department of Public Works has concerns about stormwater retention structures in the flood zone. Those too would need to be relocated, the report said.

“Granting this waiver is not recommended at this time,” the report reads.

Project engineer Nicole Reilly of DiPrete Engineering said the site had different elevations and that the developer planned to raise the elevation of the site to above-floodplain levels.

The chimney is perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of this house built circe 1705.

A sticking point for neighbors of 62 South Pierce is the planned demolition of the main house on the property, which was built around 1705, making it one of the oldest structures in East Greenwich. The house has a distinctive chimney that Primeau said he will replicate in a new building near the site of the original house and the plan calls for useable materials to be salvaged from the original building and used if possible in the new building.

“The site itself and the home are in derelict condition,” said William Landry, lawyer for Primeau, at the hearing Aug. 2. “We are proposing to deconstruct it, move it and rebuild it using new materials … and retaining the chimney structure.”

“The hope is the historic reconstruction will read like a structure that has always been on the street and the realigning residences will look like a neighborhood that’s developed through time around the ‘old’ house,” said project architect David Okerlund.

The McKenna family has owned the property for decades.
The back of the house includes additions that are in particularly bad shape, according to an engineer working for the developer.

Structural and civil engineer Craig Carrigan inspected the building for Primeau in March. He said the house had seen too much damage and deferred maintenance through the years to be saved.

“This is one of four structures I’ve seen in my career that you can’t save,” he said. “There’s too much gone at this point to actually bring it back. I can’t figure out how to fix this one. There’s too much damage.”

But one neighbor, during public comment, took issue with those assertions.

Stephen Tyson, who lives a block away and is president of Architectural Preservation Group, said he had restored many structures in similar shape to 62 South Pierce Road.

“The structural problems that were testified to earlier, they are something I do in my sleep,” said Tyson, who has served on EG’s Historic District Commission. “To say this building is falling down is a mischaracterization. It is definitely savable and I think for a reasonable price.”

While the Historic District Commission has no purview over this project since it is applying under Comprehensive Permit guidelines, the Planning Board voted Aug. 2 to refer the project to the HDC for an advisory opinion.

Another issue for nearby residents was the lack of single-family houses and the proximity of two of the structures to houses on Taylor Circle. In particular, a driveway would be within 50 feet of Pam and Wayne Savage’s house and only a few feet from their property line (seen in the photo below, marked with string). The couple have lived in their house, which abuts the McKenna property, for 40 years.

Wayne and Pam Savageau have lived in this house on Taylor Circle for 40 years, but the property line sits within feet of the back of the house.

“It was our starter house that ended up being our last house,” Wayne joked during the Planning Board’s visit to the site Aug. 5. “We took care of this part,”  he said gesturing to the area beyond the staked property line. “We wanted to buy another 30 to 40 feet but they wouldn’t sell,” he said of the McKenna family. “We didn’t know this was coming.”

Most of the McKenna property is overgrown. A pond on the site is completely obscured by vegetation. Donald McKenna, who was a janitor at Meadowbrook Farm school for many years, lived in the house with his brother but recently moved to Coventry to live with his daughter after his brother’s death. The land has been in the McKenna family for decades. Some in the neighborhood remember skating on the pond in winter. And everyone knew that the McKennas allowed dumping on the site. Primeau plans extensive remediation of the property, but the state Department of Environmental Management will have to evaluate the condition of the property since there are complaints about dumping dating to the 1970s.

The property has been on the market on and off for years, with the price tag as high as $1 million at one point, according to neighbors. Primeau is buying it for $250,000. His company, Philip Ryan Homes Ltd., is also behind a proposed 43-unit development on Middle Road just east of South County Trail (across from Pine Glen) as well as Fry Brook, a condominium complex off Middle Road just west of South County Trail. Fry Brook was largely completed in 2009 but Primeau still has not built a culvert that was part of the plan. He was before the Town Council in July seeking another extension – finishing the culvert has been tied to permission to build the 43 units on Middle Road. Primeau said the culvert would be done by the end of September and the council granted him an extension.

In an interview, Primeau blamed the poor economy for his failure to complete the Fry Brook culvert, but also placed responsibility with the town.

“The development was done. The houses were built, the roads were paved, the people were happy,” he said. “It wasn’t the right time to take care of it. If the town wanted to do it so bad, they could have pulled the performance bond,” he said. “Now, they have a culvert that’s going to be 10 years newer.”

Primeau said he’s not building single family homes on the South Pierce Road site because the market isn’t calling for single family homes in that area.

“We don’t think that’s the market. We think the market’s more for young professionals and that type of buyer more than single family homes,” he said, noting that the land was “on the cusp, on the outlying edges of a single family neighborhood…. It’s in a transitional area.”

As for neighbor complaints, Primeau said that’s part of the process when you’re a developer.

“They don’t want it developed. Everybody thinks they own it when they don’t. There’s going to be screening and landscaping. We’re providing affordable housing for the community. We’re providing tasteful moderate income housing.”

The Planning Board won’t resume the Coggeshall Homes public hearing until on Wednesday, Sept. 20. The panel meets next on Wednesday, Aug. 16, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall, and on that agenda is Final Plan Review of Tom Primeau’s Middle Road development. Find the agenda here.

– Elizabeth F. McNamara