Portsmouth approves $300K to preserve Spruce Acres Farm

Public would have access to 23-acre jewel in center of island

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PORTSMOUTH — The Aquidneck Land Trust (ALT) moved one step closer to conserving and providing public access to 23 acres of “prime farmland” in the center of Aquidneck Island when the Town Council voted unanimously Monday to spend $300,000 toward that effort.

The property straddles the Portsmouth/Middletown line — about 60 percent of the land is in Portsmouth — and would enlarge the already preserved Center Island Greenway.

According to ALT Executive Director Charles Allott, the proposal differs from other conservation easements because the Trust is looking to purchase the property outright, relocate its offices there and set up a conservation center. 

Time is of the essence, ALT says, because the property is in “immediate danger” of being developed. Mr. Allott said ALT has raised $671,000 through donations from individuals and “small-foundation funding,” plus a $300,000 grant from the R.I. Agricultural Land Preservation Commission.

The $300,000 contribution from Portsmouth, plus a promise for another $300,000 from Middletown that was contingent upon the council’s vote Monday, brought the total to over $1.5 million — “well on our way,” Mr. Allott said.

Portsmouth’s grant, which was made in exchange for a conservation easement, will be funded over two years — $150,000 coming from its budget’s contingency fund this year and next, said Town Administrator Richard Rainer Jr.

‘Important investment’

“I do believe it’s an important investment in the future,” said Mr. Allott, who listed several reasons why permanent conservation of the property was good for Portsmouth:

• It will save the town money, said Mr. Allott, who cited studies showing that residential subdivisions typically represent a revenue loss for municipalities.

• It will protect water quality inside the Sisson Pond watershed, an important water source for the island. Conserving the area will help overall impervious cover below 10 percent to ensure the land will be able to absorb and filter runoff from developed areas and prevent flooding, ecosystem impairment and water supply contamination, ALT says. “Any development within these watersheds and you’re running the risk of going over that 10 percent,” said Mr. Allott. 

• It will improve safety on East Main Road by not adding to the already congested traffic conditions. Using the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ mean trip generation rate, Mr. Allott said an additional 20 house lots on the land would create 191 additional vehicle trips daily.

• Conserving the land, Mr. Allott said, would also protect Portsmouth’s rural character as well as “USDA prime soil,” and offer the community a public place to gather and connect with the land.

On that last point, he said the property is the “perfect place” for a conservation center, and ALT will consider a community garden and possibly bringing back the now-abandoned Christmas tree farm in the future. 

“The trails exist now; the public access would begin immediately,” said Mr. Allott.

Strong support from crowd

Most residents who spoke Monday night strongly supported ALT’s request.

John Vitkevich of Hummocks Avenue reminded the council of how much local residents value conservation by recalling a special election in May 1989, during which voters approved the purchase of Glen Farm.

“Can anyone think what Portsmouth would be like without Glen Farm?” asked Mr. Vitkevich, pointing out that $300,000 came to about $2 per square foot. “I don’t want to see this one get away from us.”

Steve Johnson of Wapping Road said three years ago, he and his wife chose Aquidneck Island as the place “to grow old” together because of its rural nature. “The addition of Spruce Acres is an important step toward keeping it that way,” he said. 

What about north end?

A resident in the distinct minority, however, argued that ALT was trying to put too many eggs in the same basket.

Thomas Grieb said while ALT does admirable conservation work, it’s a private organization that doesn’t necessarily benefit all Portsmouth residents. He said the vast majority of ALT’s conservation efforts over the past 23 years fall into a two-mile circle in the middle of the island. 

“The majority of Portsmouth residents live outside that area,” said Mr. Grieb, adding that the north and west sides of town have the densest population and deserve more attention when it comes to conservation. He suggested the council develop a town-wide plan toward the acquisition of open space that will benefit all residents.

Council member Elizabeth Pedro agreed that “our conservation efforts always seem to focus on the south side” and more attention needs to be paid to the opposite end of town. “That’s where we need the open space the most,” she said.

Ms. Pedro also said $300,000 was no small investment considering the town has properties in “dire need of repair” — the senior center and Lower Glen barns among them — plus a new police station to build and two public waterfront parks being developed.

Local resident Larry Fitzmorris of the taxpayer watchdog group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens also cautioned the council about the asking price. 

“The town is facing very substantial demands on tax revenue in the immediate future,” he said.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.