Opinion: Transparency on Briggs-Boesch Is Needed

by | Mar 11, 2024

The Town Council should hold public hearings about the future of the town-owned farm

By Matthew Cancian

Currently, the McNiff family (owners of Pat’s Pastured) rent Briggs-Boesch on South Road from the town. The town proposes to increase the McNiffs’ rent and maintain the lease for only five years; the McNiffs argue that this is unsustainable for them. In lieu of this zero-sum formulation, I propose to donate $200,000 as a seed fund towards establishing an educational center on Briggs-Boesch that Kelly McNiff, a teacher, would donate much of her time to. I encourage the Town Council to hold public hearings to discuss this matter and arrive at a community-driven solution. Absent quick action, I worry that the town will miss a great opportunity to sustain local farming and expand community educational resources.

Since the last article about negotiations over Briggs-Boesch, there has been little progress on the matter. Generally, the town has stuck to their position, and the McNiffs have stuck to theirs. However, the town clearly holds all the leverage in this situation: if the McNiffs don’t sign the town’s lease, the town would be within their rights to evict the McNiffs. Without any dramatic change, I believe that the McNiffs will sign the town’s proposed lease and begin the process of leaving. Thus, five years from now, the McNiffs will be gone, the aging barns on the property will have collapsed, and the town would be on the hook to find new tenants and pay for structural repairs (or demolition), much less expand on what the property can offer to the community.

To avoid this undesirable future, I have proposed to donate $200,000 as a seed fund for a capital campaign to establish an educational center at Briggs-Boesch. There is a historic barn on the property that is collapsing; it needs to either be torn down and replaced or rehabilitated. The town’s proposed lease with the McNiffs would not address this problem. Alternatively, with my donation serving as a seed fund, the community could apply for grants and fundraise towards addressing the barn’s disrepair. This would then create the possibility of getting more community involvement with Briggs Boesch and the McNiffs.

The McNiffs would be able to support a nature center by providing teaching as part of a nonprofit they have already established. Kelly McNiff was a fourth-grade teacher before taking a break for her young children. Along with her sister (also a teacher), she has co-founded a nonprofit called “Farm and Forest Education Center.” They are ready to contribute their time towards providing pro bono community education; what they lack is a building to teach out of. This is where a community-based effort to rebuild or rehabilitate the barn comes in. This option would result in not only stability for our town’s green spaces, but an expansion of their benefits.

However, instead of engaging with the community to help adjudicate between possible ways to proceed, the Town Council continues to only discuss the matter in executive session.

In response to my proposal at Town Council meetings, the council has responded that this is a legal matter that they are not obligated to comment on. Although I am not a lawyer, it seems to me that they are correct. According to R.I. Gen. Law § 45-50-10 they do not have to hold land lease discussions in public. However, the law does not prohibit public hearings; it simply allows towns to hold negotiations without public input. I believe that excluding the public is the wrong choice and urge the Town Council to reconsider.

Holding public hearings is the best way to get community feedback on this matter. Our Town Council was swept into office based in part on their commitment to transparency in governance. Although the matter of Briggs-Boesch farm is relatively small in comparison to other concerns, I encourage the Town Council to show their commitment to transparency in matters small and large. Holding public hearings about the future of Briggs-Boesch farm will ensure that the town has heard the community’s voice before proceeding on this important matter. To show the Town Council that the community is interested in this matter, I encourage citizens to contact councilors in support of transparency on Briggs-Boesch.

Matt Cancian is a Marine veteran and MIT Ph.D. who conducts policy analysis as an associate professor at the Naval War College. These views are his own and do not reflect official positions of the Naval War College, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.

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Renu Englehart
Renu Englehart
March 12, 2024 9:51 am

Mr Cancian – You have asked the same question during a town council meeting and have been told that this is still under negotiation and we cannot comment on legal matters. You may contact the town solicitor if you have any questions regarding this. The McNiffs are running a private business on a publicly owned property and therefore the legal responsibility and questions must go through the solicitor.

Sabrina weiss
Sabrina weiss
March 12, 2024 12:12 pm

I could not agree more with all of this. There may be legal issues at play but ultimately this property is owned by the town, of which we are all members and taxpayers. If the overwhelming support of the community is for Pat’s Pastured to stay, then the town council and our town manager should do everything in their power to make that happen.

Mary Ward
Mary Ward
March 12, 2024 9:13 pm

As an East Greenwich resident, taxpayer and therefore part owner of Boesch Farm I’d love to see more transparency on the property too. When the leasees posted an appeal seeking to lower their lease costs some months ago I asked some of these questions but got no answers, then I guess the issue went to litigation which hindered transparency further but…
I’ve been curious to know what rent the town charges for the farm and what obligations the leasees have to provide community access to the farm, how they manage that and what community programs they offer.
I understand the leasees run some camps and events and wonder if they are insured for liability for all that so taxpayers aren’t found liable in the event of an accident.
They are not merely local farmers farming public lands but run a business from the farm, do they have business licenses and permits to kill animals & run a store on the land? Is that part of the lease agreements or why isn’t the lease agreement public?
The barn is part of the farm and this is also public property so it’s up to the town what to do with it. I heard it’s condemned and beyond repair so there should be no activities being held there for liability reasons.
It is an incredible gesture to offer $200K for a learning center for the town but I don’t think that would be wise until the lease is agreed on.
I think the leasees should create a proposal and business plan for how they operate the farm making the income and operating expenses including liability insurance costs, business activities, community activities and all relevant information transparent and available to the public. Then the town can weigh in publicly on thoughts and suggestions about how the property is used and what we’d like to see for the farm’s future. Seems to me transparency is needed across the board and the leasees haven’t been that transparent. We all want the farm to succeed, especially since we all own it. Maybe hold on to your $200K until the lease is either agreed on or reopened for new proposals, then the town can hold public meetings on developing longer term plans?

Gregory Dubell
Gregory Dubell
March 13, 2024 6:38 am

Anyone interested in reviewing information about the administrative history and management of the Briggs-Boesch Farm can view the supporting documentation (including the expired lease and other relevant information) on the Town’s Civic Engagement page: https://east-greenwich-ri.civilspace.io/en/projects/briggs-boesch-farm-c1704

Of note, included among the documentation there is an advisory opinion memorandum from the East Greenwich Town Solicitor dating from 6/5/2019 offering recommendations to the Town Council regarding the the role of the East Greenwich Municipal Land Trust, whereby no official action has been taken by the Town Council to resolve the issues raised by the Solicitor. Changing the Town Municipal Code to eliminate the Land Trust is one of the possible options recommended by the Solicitor.

Missing documentation from the Town’s Civic Engagement site includes a now-expired Preservation Easement for the property that was held by the Rhode Island Historic Preservation & Heritage Commission, which detailed the significance of the property from an historic resource standpoint – the property is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and elements of the property are suffering due to demolition by neglect. The Preservation Easement can be found in the Town’s Land Evidence files.

alan clarke
alan clarke
March 15, 2024 8:27 am

This cannot go on much longer without a massive correction and reset. Deal through the solicitor? For ten years, the cemetery commission has been trying to get the solicitor to make the housing developments in town live up to their signed commitments to take care of the historic cemeteries within them. It hasn’t happened! If the solicitor cannot do that simple thing, make them do as they agreed to do at the start, how can the solicitor’s office do more complex things. For 250 years, we got by with a town council running things and the town grew. Then due to the growing complications of a modern life, we hire a town manager. When that does not get the job done we hire more people and still it does not get done. If paid professionals and eager volunteers cannot get the job done, who else do we have? Time to look again at the Town Charter because this is not working. Basically the taxes cannot keep going up and up! If the problems don’t get solved no matter how much money is tossed at them, it’s time for a new general reappraisal rather than pumping more steroids into a dying horse.

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