Pawtucket fights to keep trash transfer station out

In the last few years, Pawtucket has made no secret of its plans to reinvent itself. In an effort to shed its image as a struggling mill city and become a thriving artists’ community, it has encouraged developers to refurbish aging mills and hospitality businesses to take a chance on the city.

But a trash transfer station on Pine Street proposed by Pawtucket Transfer Operations, many say, would smother the progress the city has made.

The eight-acre facility, across the street from the Union Wadding mill and stretching westward to Conant Street, would receive 1,500 tons of construction and demolition debris each day from towns and cities within a 30- to 40-mile radius. Though no processing would be done on-site and all trash transfer would take place in closed buildings, opponents say it is a poor fit with the city’s goals.

“The city is trying to attract artist galleries and new restaurants to try to bring new life to downtown, and this facility is adjacent to that,” said Matt Kierstead, a downtown resident and member of the recently formed Pawtucket Alliance for Downtown Success (PADS).

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There’s a plan to transform Union Wadding into 200 residential lofts, and the site of the proposed transfer station is one spot being considered for a commuter-rail station in the city.

Additional residential projects, as well as existing residential buildings, are within blocks of the site.

A waste transfer station “would devalue property, raise insurance rates and just make downtown a less desirable place to live and visit,” Kierstead said. “It would set the city back decades. This is a recycling facility, and that’s a good thing, but there’s a time and place for everything. This isn’t the time or the place for the second-largest waste facility in New England.”

But Transload America Inc., Pawtucket Transfer Operations’ majority partner, disagrees.
“We think the site is suitable to what we’re proposing,” said Mike Wellman, executive vice president of the company. “We would be a positive to the Pawtucket economy. We’re looking at bringing in 10 to 15 jobs, paying the local wages of three-quarters of a million per year and supporting local vendors, which equates to another $1.5 million per year. Several millions dollars per year will be infused into the local economy.”

The company’s business involves removing waste from high-priced Northeast urban markets and hauling it to lower-cost disposal sites in the Midwest and Southeast, Wellman said.

“We look for any suitable industrial rail site,” he said, and the Pine Street site “is ideally suited for this activity.” It is served by the Providence & Worcester Railroad, he noted, it “has good rail capacity, and it’s an eight-acre site. It’s an ideal site.” The company isn’t considering any alternatives, Wellman said.

But the city shares PADS’ views and is fighting to block the facility.

Though the city granted Pawtucket Transfer Operations a certificate of zoning compliance in 2003, Planning Director Michael Cassidy said that certificate was issued in error.

“We have a section in our zoning ordinance where each use is described. We had a category ‘public, semi-public, education and recreation uses,’ and that’s the category where refuse transfer stations was listed,” Cassidy said. “It was my opinion that the category and the uses described in that category were essentially nonprofit uses. I asked the [town] solicitor to review that, and he agreed that the refuse transfer station had to be public or semi-public. It didn’t apply to private facilities.”

In 2005 the Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously upheld Cassidy’s ruling. But this June, Superior Court Judge Stephen Fortunato overturned the decision. Now, the city is appealing his ruling.

“It is not a use that the city feels is of any use to the city,” Cassidy said. “The site they’ve chosen is in the city’s downtown area and would require all of their trucks to drive through the city’s downtown to get to this site. They would go past all the mill buildings that have been redeveloped. We see it as a significant negative impact on the city, if this facility is built.”

Bayley Lofts, a former mill that has been transformed into 25 residential lofts, is only 600 feet away from the proposed transfer station.

“I decided to take a gamble on downtown and buy my first home,” said Kierstead, who lives there. “Now, I’m confronted with the specter of this facility down the street.”
The site is also close to a residential street and to another mill that’s being considered for residential lofts.

Alex Dambach, the city planner for Newark, N.J., where Transload America operates a 28-acre C&D transfer station, said such a situation would not have been allowed in Newark.
“[The Newark facility] is on the far edge of the city, in a very heavy industrial area, and on other side of the turnpike from us. It’s in our ugliest area,” Dambach said. “It’s not a good land use to have in a residential area. Any kind of a waste-disposal facility anywhere other than our heavily industrial area would have been a problem for us.”

If Pawtucket’s appeal were denied, Pawtucket Transfer Operations would still need approval from the R.I. Department of Environmental Management before it could build the facility, but Wellman said he is confident the facility would meet DEM standards.

DEM spokeswoman Gail Mastrati said the agency takes into consideration whether a facility is allowed by the local zoning ordinance, and whether it would comply with environmental laws and regulations, but it does not consider many of the factors at issue in Pawtucket, such as the truck traffic and the impact on the city’s new arts district.

PADS is keeping up the fight.

“It’s business, and PADS is not anti-business, but we feel this is a business killer,” Kierstead said. “It’s not going to bring money to the city. It’s just going to bring trash.”