EAST PROVIDENCE — Even as they’ve been rebuffed despite their many protestations, having received numerous reports issued in support of their cause and having been offered what they believe were several empty promises, the residents of Harding Avenue remain resolute in their fight against the redevelopment of two long empty parcels of land on the narrow road along the shoreline in the Riverside section of the city.
The Harding Avenue Homeowners Association, nine in number, recently said they are going to use every measure at their disposal, including the legal system, to prevent the city from going through with its plans to sell the land to contractors who plan to build at least one if not two new homes on the street, which measures just 16 feet wide.
“(The city) didn’t give us a fair shake, and that’s what bothers us the most. They have put a hardship on all of us,” said Harding Avenue resident Bettyann Perry, who’s family has lived on the street for several generations. “We’re preparing to take legal action because it seems that’s the only way they will listen to us, unfortunately, in my opinion.”
The residents of the Harding Avenue have for decades used the empty lots to park their cars, most of their properties too small to house a driveway. For the better part of the last 20 years, the home owners have sought to purchase the vacant land, which sits on the west side of the street, from the city only to be rejected at each turn, including and most recently by the City Council in early June. The current Council voted 3-2 against a motion to take the Harding lots off the market.
The residents and the city have for several years had what could be called a “gentlemen’s agreement” over the land. The city wouldn’t sell it to them, but neither would it sell to anyone else. In exchange, the residents could park their cars in the lot without charge.
That scenario began to change last year when the state-appointed Budget Commission took over governance of East Providence. Seeing the significant amount of dormant city-owned land, the Commission decided to put all of it on the market, including the Harding Avenue lots. The only problem with the decision the estimation of the residents, and it’s a big one, is they weren’t made aware of the possible transaction until it was too late.
MJV Homes LLC, a company located in Saunderstown, R.I., entered into a purchasing agreement with the city, paying approximately $150,000 for both parcels. The company has already hired surveyors to measure and plot the land, which has a Type 2 zoning variance.
In the past, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Management Resources Agency have issued reports on the Harding Avenue property, which claim it likely to be unsuitable for development. State guidelines deem construction must be some 50 feet away from the coast. The city mandate adds as much as 20 more feet to variance. The vacant Harding Avenue lots are both extremely close to eclipsing those measurements. One of the parcels also would likely need to be backfilled and a retaining wall may have to be built, two things which aren’t often allowed by authorities.
In addition, Acting East Providence Fire Chief Oscar Elmasian has signed off on a report from his department, which stated as it is currently constructed Harding Avenue is already difficult to traverse and also suggested any additional cars being placed on it would hinder firefighters and rescue personnel during future times of crisis.
“The chief said it comprised response time. They’re putting people who have lived here for years, who have paid taxes, they’re putting our safety at risk and as a parent that scares me,” said Kathy Legault, who lives at 22 Harding.
“The garbage truck hit the wall at 28. They’ve hit a car at 24. The street just isn’t wide enough to park on it. And you should see it when it snows,” said another Harding resident Carleen Needham.
Added Mrs. Legault, “It’s creating a hardship for the neighborhood. Why won’t they at least compromise? Why do they have to sell both pieces. Why can’t they just sell one and keep the other for parking? It’s creating a lot of anxiety. We’re all having a lot of sleepless nights thinking about this.”
Even with Chief Elmasian’s opinion in hand, well over an hour of testimony from Harding residents and a comprehensive folder of information on the issue provided by Ms. Perry, the City Council opted to keep the Harding Avenue lots up for sale.
Citing the pending purchase-and-sales agreement, Councilors James Briden, Thomas Rose Jr. and Helder Cunha voted in favor of the resolution. Councilors Chrissy Rossi, whose district covers Harding, and Tracy Capobianco, the At-Large representative but also a Riverside resident, voted to take them off the market.
At that June Council meeting, the residents once more offered to purchase the land or work out an arrangement with the city where they could possibly pay a yearly parking fee and release East Providence from any liability claims. Like past Councils, though, the attempt by Harding homeowners was rejected.
Mr. Briden, the Council president, declined to comment for this story. City Manager Peter Graczykowski, who like Mr. Briden sits on the Budget Commission, did not want to get into the specifics of the matter but did offer a response when asked saying, “It’s an unfortunate situation. We sympathize with the residents. Of course we don’t want to see this enter litigation, but they are within their rights to seek legal representation.”
Ms. Perry, a military veteran who has kept a detailed scrapbook on the matter for several years, said she originally offered to purchase the land when she returned home from the Gulf War in 1992. At that time, the two parcels of land were valued by the city at a combined $40,000. Since, the neighbors have at various points attempted to purchase the parcels again and again, only to be told they weren’t for sale or to see the city pull the land off the market. Not this time, however, which has led East Providence and its Harding Avenue residents down the road towards a possible legal confrontation.
“We don’t want much,” Ms. Perry concluded. “All we want is a fair shake.”