Development spurred debate, and a vision for the city’s educational future was unveiled. Longtime civic leaders left the stage, while a looming change in the occupancy of the mayor’s office spurred political speculation.
In Cranston, 2019 appears likely to be remembered as a year of transition. It marks the final chapter in a decade-long story, one that began with the city financially – and literally – underwater and ended with a new set of challenges but a degree of stability seemingly unseen in recent memory.
Here, loosely ranked but in no definitive order, are some of the major stories that shaped the city in the last year.
Since the adoption of the city’s existing rules governing solar energy in 2015, concerns have arisen from officials and residents over the spread of commercial-scale installations in Western Cranston – specifically in residential and open space zones.
At the year’s outset, the City Council approved – and Mayor Allan Fung signed – a nine-month moratorium on commercial-scale projects.
As part of the move, the city’s Planning Department and Planning Commission were charged with reviewing the existing rules and developing a new proposal for consideration.
Public forums followed, and the commission brought forward ordinance amendments that would create a new “major accessory” designation for solar projects, require a special use permit for commercial-scale installations in A-80 residential and S-1 open space zones, and otherwise increase setback, buffering and screening requirements.
Separately, members of the City Council introduced a measure that would bar commercial-scale installations in the A-80 and S-1 zones. A related proposal sought to amend the city’s Comprehensive Plan by removing language that designates the placement of solar facilities as a form of “land banking.”
In October, the council voted to extend the moratorium until Jan. 31 to allow time for additional review and debate. Fung subsequently signed off on that extension.
Most recently, during a special meeting in November, the council’s Ordinance Committee approved amended versions of the Planning Commission’s recommended ordinances – with the alterations designed to prohibit commercial-scale projects in the A-80 and S-1 zones. Their final consideration by the full council was continued to allow time for the Planning Department to develop a corresponding Comprehensive Plan amendment.
“We’re righting a wrong that occurred back in 2015 when the initial ordinance was passed. I think if anybody knew the massive proliferation of solar was going to happen … I don’t think the council would have passed what they passed all those years ago,” Council President Michael Farina said during the November meeting.
The new Comprehensive Plan amendment is slated to go before the Planning Commission in January, after which the council would take up that amendment and the revised solar ordinances at its regular meeting. Mayor Allan Fung recently said he will await the final versions of the proposals before deciding how he will act on them.
Some significant changes were seen in the city’s public school facilities during the last year – and many more could be on the way.
At the conclusion of the 2018-19 school year, Chester W. Barrows Elementary School closed its doors as part of a five-year capital master plan focused on improvements to the district’s facilities. Students from Barrows were assigned to E.S. Rhodes and Edgewood Highland elementary schools for the current school year.
Then, over the summer, a major renovation project was completed at Eden Park Elementary School, transforming the school’s intermediate wing into what has been dubbed the “Learning Community.” Unveiled to the public during events in October, the renovated wing is a bright, open space designed to accommodate a new educational vision for the city’s schools in the 21st century.
The Eden Park work was known as the “Pathfinder Project” – the starting point, and model, for the ambitious district-wide facilities project developed with the assistance of educational planning and design firm Fielding Nair International, or FNI.
The capital master plan outlines more than $130 million worth of work across five schools, ranging from renovation to total reconstruction. The district plans to seek voter approval of a bond question at the November 2020 ballot and to utilize state funding for school buildings as part of the initiative.
“I think it’s time for our students and our staff to have the facilities to match what out mission is – to make students ready for careers and post-secondary education that suits the 21st century, not the early 20th center,” Cranston Public Schools Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse said during an interview earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the installation of a new artificial turf field at Cranston High School West – along with new stands and facilities – will allow for the return of the Falcons football team for home games, as well as other athletics programs and activities. The project was a collaborative effort between the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and the Cranston West Alumni Association.
Starting July 1, 2020, shoppers in Cranston will no longer see single-use plastic bags at local checkout counters.
The city will join a growing list of Rhode Island communities to bar the use of single-use bags for retail checkout purchases, with exemptions provided for “double-opening” bags used to protect dry cleaned items and “plastic barrier” bags used for supermarket produce, newspapers and other items.
The measure was introduced by Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan and Ward 5 Councilman Chris Paplauskas, and the council approved the ordinance amendment on a 6-1 vote in March.
Fung vetoed the bag ban when it reached his desk, citing concerns over its effects on the local business community. But on Earth Day in April, the council voted unanimously to override the veto.
“I’m glad that, on Earth Day no less, we were able to make a strong statement that protecting our local environment is a priority in Cranston,” Donegan said at the time.
In January, a zoning change cleared the way for construction of a Topgolf sports-entertainment complex at the former site of Citizens Bank’s Sockanosset Cross Road corporate offices.
It is estimated that the project – brought forward by Chapel View developer Carpionato Group, operating as 100 Sockanosset LLC – will generate more than $1 million in tax revenue for the city annually. Topgolf, based in Texas, has locations across the United States and in the United Kingdom and Australia.
The project drew opposition from some residents, with concerns centered on issues of traffic, noise and visual impacts.
“We are not against business coming to Cranston … But this particular venue is totally inappropriate for Chapel View,” Pauline DeRosa, found of the group Garden City Alliance, told City Council members during one meeting.
But supporters – and, ultimately, council members – viewed the project as an appropriate, and welcome, investment in the city.
“This project, with Topgolf coming here, really feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as an elected official … the jobs it’s going to create, the tax revenue it’s going to bring in,” Paplauskas said during the final approval of the zoning change.
The zoning change, which received the council’s unanimous approval, allows for additional by-right uses at the site, which is zoned as C-5 commercial/industrial, including commercial recreation, cultural uses, recreational membership clubs, commercial off-street parking and electric vehicle charging stations. The maximum accessory height limit was set at 190 feet to allow for netting and polls as park of Topgolf’s driving range.
FIRE CHIEF AND DIVERSITY
In July, William McKenna retired as chief of the Cranston Fire Department after a nearly four-decade career.
Fung subsequently nominated Paul Valletta, president of IAFF Local 1363 and a lobbyist with the Rhode Island Association of Firefighters, as McKenna’s successor. After a sometimes controversial advice-and-consent process before the City Council, however, Valletta in July withdrew his candidacy and submitted his retirement papers, citing a desire to continue his lobbying work at the state level.
Fung then nominated Stephen MacIntosh, a 35-year fire service veteran who became deputy chief and fire marshal in 2011, for the top job. The council approved his appointment in August.
The debate surrounding the fire chief’s position spurred renewed discussion of a lack of diversity within the city’s workforce – and specifically on the Fire Department, which has no members of color and only recently welcomed women into its ranks.
Earlier in the year, in April, the council approved the creation of a new Diversity Commission charged with exploring means of fostering greater diversity among the city’s workforce.
As part of the commission’s work, Fung recently announced plans to institute a change in the hiring requirements for city firefighters. Starting with the next recruiting class, EMT-C cardiac licensure will become a post-employment requirement, rather than a prerequisite for hiring. The change is meant to ease a potential cost barrier for applicants.
In 2020, for the first time in more than a decade, Mayor Fung will not appear on the ballot for reelection – and the maneuvering to succeed him in the city’s top job is well underway.
Fung is departing as a result of term limits adopted in recent years, which limit occupants of the mayor’s office to a pair of four-year terms. The mayor, who was first elected in 2008 before the limits were instituted, will leave office in January 2021.
Farina, a Democrat-turned-Republican who is in his fourth term as citywide council member, has all but confirmed his candidacy. Others believed to be mulling bids on the Republican side include Paplauskas, former councilman Jim Donahue and Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, the mayor’s wife.
On the Democratic side, speculation has centered on Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos, state Rep. Charlene Lima, former mayor Michael Napolitano and former councilwoman Maria Bucci.
Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins, a Republican, announced earlier this year that he had decided against a mayoral bid, opting instead to seek reelection with an eye toward becoming the council’s next president.
In the months since, three GOP hopefuls – citywide candidate Robert Ferri, along with Matthew Reilly in Ward 6 and Jay Bombardier in Ward 3 – have announced their plans to run. Donegan and Ward 4 Councilman Ed Brady have said they plan to seek reelection.
Stycos and current Ward 6 Councilman Michael Favicchio will depart the council after next year’s election due to term limits.
Additionally, changes have been seen this year on the School Committee.
Ward 2 representative Stephanie Culhane stepped down in August due to a move to another part of the city, and her seat has since been filled by Kristen Haroian. In November, former chairwoman and Ward 5 representative Janice Ruggieri resigned from her seat on the committee. The search for her successor is underway, with an appointment expected in January.
The next mayor, and members of the City Council seated in January 2021, will see pay increases as a result of two ordinance amendments approved by the council in September.
The amendments – which generated significant debate, and were altered following their initial introduction – will increase the mayor’s salary from roughly $81,000 to $105,000 and the pay of council members from $4,000 to $6,000. The council president’s pay will also increase, from $5,000 to $8,000.
The mayor’s salary has been unchanged since 2002, while the compensation for council members has not increased since the 1980s. Backers of the increases said they were long overdue and needed to incentivize quality candidates to run for local office. Critics countered that any increased spending should focus on other areas of need.
Fung, who opposed the mayoral pay increase and allowed the measure to become law without his signature, will leave office before the new salary takes effect.
PENSION CHANGES UPHELD
Changes to the local pension system for police and fire retirees weathered a pair of significant legal challenges this year.
In June the Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter’s 2016 decision in favor of the city in the case Cranston Police Retirees Action Committee v. the City of Cranston. Then, earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the retiree group’s petition to hear the case.
The case stemmed from the City Council’s 2013 adoption of a pair of ordinance amendments providing for a 10-year freeze on cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, for retirees in the city’s fire and police pension system. Fung proposed the freeze to prevent the local pension system from receiving a “critical status” label, as defined under the state’s 2011 pension reform law.
Police and fire retirees subsequently filed suit against the city, at which point a settlement was reached. The settlement received judicial approval in December 2013, but roughly 70 retirees opted out of the pact and formed CPFRAC to continue a legal challenge.
MURDER VICTIM MOURNED
In March, the community mourned the loss of 29-year-old Lauren Ise, who was murdered at her Edgewood apartment. Police subsequently charged her estranged boyfriend, the son of a late mob figure, with her killing.
A week after the tragedy, friends and family members of Ise joined others from throughout the community for a vigil at Hugh B. Bain Middle School. In July, a walk was held there to honor Ise’s memory and raise awareness of domestic violence issues.
In late 2018, the Cranston Department of Senior Services received a $10,000 grant from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation to launch an initiative focused on making Cranston a dementia-friendly community. The grant has provided for outreach efforts and programming, including a panel discussion on Alzheimer’s disease research. The grant was recently renewed for a second year, and the city has also partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association of Rhode Island.
HISTORIC HOME PRESERVED
Early in the year, it was discovered that the historic Nathan Westcott House on Scituate Avenue – which was built around 1770 and, like the adjacent Joy Homestead, sits along the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route – had been gutted as a result of an illicit marijuana-growing operation.
The house was seized by the federal government when its owner, charged with overseeing the operation, became a fugitive from justice. It was then put up for sale through an auction, and fears arose that it could be demolished.
In September, however, the City Council approved the creation of a new historic district for the property – seemingly preserving its historic exterior.