The first major housing development west of Route 2 was initially greeted with hostility
With the Planning Board weighing the largest development in EG history – 410 units on an 80-acre parcel in the northwest corner of town on Division Road – EG News decided to look at the first time a large development was built west of Route 2. That was High Hawk, which was approved in the early 1970s and built in phases over the next 20-plus years. High Hawk and the “Division Road Neighborhood” project are very different, with the newer proposal calling for a mix of single family houses, duplexes, triplexes, and smaller and larger apartment buildings versus High Hawk’s all single-family houses. But some of the sentiment from residents today echoes concerns 40 and 50 years ago about the loss of open space and wildlife, as well as a deleterious increase in traffic and potential runoff problems.
For John Murphy, the High Hawk development represented a new life for his young family. He and his wife, Grace, moved from Providence’s Fox Point to High Hawk Road in 1977 with three sons in tow – their fourth son born after the move. The Murphys were the second owner of their house – the first only lived there a couple of years – and there were only maybe 20 houses in High Hawk at that point.
“It was all young families on my street,” said John. “Loads of young kids in the neighborhood.”
The developer of High Hawk came to East Greenwich in the late 1960s with a plan to build 180 to 190 single-family houses on a 250-acre parcel on Frenchtown Road. By then, the town had already seen extraordinary growth.
East Greenwich grew by 57 percent from 1960 to 1970 – from 6,100 people to 9,577 – by far the largest population increase in the town’s history. Houses had been built all over on land between downtown and Route 2 – the Lillibridge tract, Meadowbrook, River Farm, Cindy Ann, Tanglewood, Queen’s Grant, etc. It’s no wonder the town built four schools between 1958 and 1969 (Hanaford in ‘58, Frenchtown in ‘64, EGHS in ‘67, and Meadowbrook in ‘69).
High Hawk was the first proposed development west of Route 2 and EG residents, especially those who lived in the Frenchtown area, were not enthusiastic, according to articles from the time published in the Rhode Island Pendulum (known today as the East Greenwich Pendulum).
High Hawk is such a fixed part of the East Greenwich landscape now that it’s interesting to hear the Rhode Island Pendulum in its March 5, 1970 edition write that the developer was “intent on bringing ‘civilization’ to the far reaches of Frenchtown.” Yet, it makes some sense when you realize just how rural Frenchtown still was in 1970 – farms and more farms, with some houses.
The Aug. 20, 1970, Pendulum features an article about a petition signed by 276 residents “of the Frenchtown area” who wanted the Town Council to require 2-acre zoning there. The area was zoned farmland, which required one acre. One quote from the petition: “We hate to see the countryside built up by developers – for a profit – then have them leave us with their problems.”
There was a competing petition from other area residents with 136 signatures saying they were against 2-acre zone change. The Town Council had been leaning toward a 2-acre zone because of possible well water limitations but then Kent County Water Authority started building out its water pipe infrastructure, making that issue moot. (High Hawk is on KCWA water.)
The houses were built in phases. By the mid-1970s, people were living there and at least one High Hawk homeowner took exception to how the development’s residents were being treated by the Pendulum’s editorial page. In the Jan. 25, 1978, Pendulum, Mrs. William Sturgeon wrote a letter decrying the Pendulum’s editorial two weeks earlier urging residents to clip out postcards from the paper demanding a public hearing on the construction of tennis courts on Frenchtown Road. “Are we or are we not residents of East Greenwich?” she wrote. In 1980, the tennis courts were approved and stand today. Those and the very basic playground behind the Parks & Rec building on Frenchtown Road were the only recreational facilities west of Route 2 until the town built a playground and ball field off Middle Road at The Woods development 20 or so years ago.
Some efforts to slow or change what was being built continued at least until 1980, when Tillinghast Road resident Jonathan Feinstein urged the town to limit the number of houses to be built on and around Arrowhead Way, the road linking High Hawk to Tillinghast. In a Pendulum article dated May 21, 1980, Feinstein argued the development “could pollute a nearby brook and harm wildlife and vegetation.”
The arrival of High Hawk was followed by the developments of Signal Ridge and Stone Ridge between Division Road and Middle Road in the 1980s and developments like The Woods off Middle and Westfield Farms off Division Road in the 1990s and 2000s.
Of course, all those new houses added to the town’s population. East Greenwich grew by 3,371 – to 12,948 people – between 1970 and 2000. By 2020, the town had added another 1,364 people, for a total of 14,312, according to the U.S. Census.
Forty-six years after John Murphy moved to East Greenwich, he has no regrets.
“I love the town. I’d invest money in this town all day long,” Murphy said. “Quality of life is great, measuring East Greenwich to any other town. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”