E.P. Council continues fact-finding mission on taking of Metacomet

Hears potential financial impact eminent domain would have on city, taxpayers

By Mike Rego
Posted 11/30/20

EAST PROVIDENCE — The City Council, during its November 24 meeting, continued its fact-finding mission on the feasibility of attempting to procure the Metacomet Golf Club through eminent …

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E.P. Council continues fact-finding mission on taking of Metacomet

Hears potential financial impact eminent domain would have on city, taxpayers

Posted

EAST PROVIDENCE — The City Council, during its November 24 meeting, continued its fact-finding mission on the feasibility of attempting to procure the Metacomet Golf Club through eminent domain.

At the request of members Ricardo Mourato and Nate Cahoon, the body discussed various aspects of the matter once again, as it has often of late, gathering more information on the topic, including some financial figures from the administration of Mayor Bob DaSilva.

Several questions abound about the eminent domain process, but so far few answers have been offered.

What is known at the moment is what Marshall Properties Inc. paid for the property. An acquisition price of $7.6 million was recorded with the city in October of this year.

What is not known is how much the city would be required to pay for the land through eminent domain. Would it be the assessed value, a figure well below the purchase price, or the so-called “best use” of it, a number likely well above for which it was bought by Marshall.

Metacomet was last assessed for the city by Vision Government Solutions, according to the company’s website, in 2019. The overall assessment of the parcel, its buildings and other tangible assets was $3,989,900, $2,021,200 specifically for the 138-acres of land.

The council, last week, did take one pertinent vote, a 2-2 draw on Mr. Mourato’s proposal to hire outside legal counsel, aside from the City Solicitor’s office, to assist the body during the process, initially that of having Metacomet ppraised by a specialist in the field. The split decision meant the measure did not pass.

Ward 2 Councilor Anna Sousa, a nurse by profession who was on the job when the meeting began, was not present at the time of the vote. She later indicated she would have broken the tie in favor of hiring outside counsel and asked the subject be revisited.

Per meeting guidelines, known as “Roberts’ Rules,” those who were on the victorious side of the vote, Councilors Bob Britto and Bob Rodericks, could have allowed for a second vote. Both, however, declined. Mr. Rodericks said he was opposed to hiring additional legal assistance because he believed the council could, itself, lead the appraisal effort. Mr. Britto has simply and forthrightly been in opposition of any means of taking Metacomet through eminent domain.

In presenting his side of the argument, Mr. Mourato said it was imperative the council get the process going in a proper fashion. He said the need for an appraisal on the value of the parcel was paramount.

“We keep going around and around with these discussions on eminent domain. I think we should have a starting point so at least we know what the property is worth,” he said. “If it’s way out of reach, we don’t do it. And if it’s within reach, we do it.”

“There are steps that are required. The appraisal should be done through an attorney,” Mr. Mourato insisted, adding the council may need to act through ordinance and would likely need legal assistance in getting the owners to allow an on-site appraisal.

He continued, “I just think it’s wise to secure an attorney to walk us through that process…I just want to do it right is what I’m saying, and I think getting the attorney is what we should do first.”

Mr. Cahoon concurred, saying “there’s no harm” in the council putting out a Request for Proposal to attorneys who specialize in appraisals, something the body could do without any cost or subsequent action. The Ward 3 councilor said he and his peers set aside money in their budget for just such an event.

“I’m having a difficult time thinking there is a legal issue that could be more important than the question of taking over someone’s property,” Mr. Cahoon said. “I think that’s the kind of thing that warrants specialized services.”

Mr. Rodericks noted he supported the assertion the council must get a fuller picture on how much Metacomet is worth, but he did not think paying an attorney was a wise use of money.

“I think everyone agrees we need an independent presentation as soon as possible,” Mr. Rodericks said. “But do we need to spend money to hire an attorney?…Can’t we get the appraiser ourselves?”

Mr. Britto, restating his position against the taking of Metacomet, said the eminent domain process would be a lengthy one regardless, citing likely extended court deliberations. He felt spending money to hire an attorney to assist in the appraisal now would eventually lead the council’s legal budget to “max out even before we begin litigation.”

Upon joining the discussion, Ms. Sousa echoed the sentiments of Messrs. Cahoon and Mourato on the importance of the council being shepherded through the eminent domain proposal correctly and from the outset.

Despite the opposition, Mr. Mourato indicated he would put his request back up for reconsideration on the agenda of the next council meeting Tuesday, Dec. 8.

Financial focus
In a separate docket item, Mr. Cahoon requested the administration provide an overview of the potential financial impact taking Metacomet through eminent domain would have on the city’s coffers and that on the taxpayer.

He described the approach as similar to that taken during the effort to gain approval for construction of the new East Providence High School. Mr. Cahoon sits as co-chair of the new EPHS Building Committee.

He said understanding the expenses and finances around the Metacomet situation was key, especially to individual taxpayers, how it would affect them on a house-by-house, median-valued homes basis.

City Finance Director Malcolm Moore reminded the council that every approximately .9 percent increase in the annual property tax rate comes with an additional $1 million in revenue. That would equate to a relatively benigh uptick in bills for homeowners of between roughly $36-$40 a year.

However, Mr. Moore said he was concerned about “bumping up” against the 3.5 percent annual tax increase limit in the City Charter, considering the city will need to make an initial bond payment of $7.2 million for the new EPHS in Fiscal Year 2024.

Taking into account contractual obligations for employees, like raises and anticipated increases in the cost of benefits, he said, “We don’t seem to have the capacity” to take on more debt. Using a professional sports financial analogy, Mr. Moore added, “We don’t have the cap space.”

Following Mr. Moore’s remarks, Mr. Cahoon said “knowledge of the numbers is critical otherwise we’re making a decision recklessly.”

He noted a stream of consistent revenue would be required to make taking Metacomet sensible, which is why he previously asked the administration offer up a Request for Information (RFI) from potential partners on how they envision the land becoming a money-making proposition for themselves and the city.

“Should the council elect to pursue eminent domain, there needs to be a financial component,” Mr. Cahoon added. “It has to produce something from a monetary standpoint in order to be fiscally viable.”

Mr. Britto told his peers to “keep in mind it’s not so much the price paid (Marshall) for it or the price it was appraised at, but the ‘highest and best use.’ That’s what’s going to be litigated.”

That “highest and best use” number, of which has been hypothesized at previous council meetings and in other spaces, has been pegged at upwards of between $10-$14 million.

Administration’s view
For its part, Mayor DaSilva said City Tax Assessor Sarah Frew received an estimate of $15,000 to do an appraisal by a specialist in the field. The estimate included an additional cost of $300 per hour if they needed to testify in any capacity before the council or in the courts.

The mayor said his office remains “at the ready to act,” but relented to the council until the body makes a decision. He said his office was there to “present the facts…the council will make the decision.”

Mayor DaSilva added the administration is “working the numbers” and has been reaching out to private, non-profit organizations who may have means to fund the effort as mentioned by proponents of eminent domain. He said their answers have been “no.”

He specifically referenced The Nature Conservancy, which purchased a piece of the Agawam Hunt Club property, but that was funded by member donations, not directly through the organization.

The Nature Conservancy, two years ago, purchased a conservation easement on 82 acres of open space at Agawam Hunt for $2 million (“Agawam Hunt, Nature Conservancy announce access agreement,” The Post, April 19, 2018).

“Friendly” sale
The idea of Marshall being amenable to what is referred to as a “friendly sale,” of being open to negotiating a purchase of Metacomet away from the courts was flat out rejected by the developer, Mr. Cahoon told the council.

He along with Mr. Rodericks and State Representative Gregg Amore (D-Dist. 65, East Providence) recently met with Marshall to discuss the situation and, Mr. Cahoon said, gain some understanding of the company’s position.

“They’re certainly paying attention to what’s going in the city…what’s going on with eminent domain,” Mr. Cahoon explained. “I wanted to take the opportunity to understand their perspective, their goals, if it’s in line with comprehensive plan we have in place and the concerns of community.

“I asked the question about if they had any interest in a ‘friendly sale’ and they indicated that they did not. That tells me our options in regard to this property are eminent domain or a compromise with Marshall about what goes on that property.”

Mr. Rodericks added, “I think it was a pretty blunt conversation…They don’t dispute we can take it by eminent domain.”

The At-Large councilor said in his view there are three options for the city as the situation stands: it takes the property through eminent domain; it allows Marshall to build under existing zoning parameters, the so-called “Plan B” option; or it re-engages with Marshall to discuss a more palatable redevelopment scheme.

Mr. Rodericks noted the possibilities of “Plan B,” which could include an amusement park among other approved uses, are things “none of us want,” leaving the city with a choice of negotiating with Marshall a “compromise and give us more of what our community is asking for.”

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