Johnston Town Council questioned over Amazon, ‘Project Schooner’ timeline


Amy Dixon has been following “Project Schooner” as closely as most Johnston residents.

The development, likely to become a giant Amazon distribution center, popped up before the Johnston Planning Board in late winter.

Last month, the Planning Board gave the project another green light, accepting the preliminary plan pitched by applicant Bluewater Property Group.

And soon, only if the company wants a tax incentive plan, the project might appear before Johnston Town Council.

But it might not. According to Town Council President Robert Russo and Assistant Town Solicitor Dylan Conley, “Schooner” could start construction tomorrow, if they want to pay the same tax rate as every other business in town.

Dixon scored a spot on Tuesday night’s Town Council agenda, filing a timely request with the town clerk prior to publication of the meeting’s agenda.

She arrived with a long list of questions. Over about 20 minutes, she made her case, seeking more information on the project, as Russo, Conley and Town Council Vice President Joseph Polisena Jr. took turns responding.

“I’ve been unsuccessful in my efforts to obtain any meaningful data regarding ‘Project Schooner’ despite repeated attempts,” Dixon said. “Responses I have received so far are: ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I can’t say’ or ‘I don’t have that information.’”

District 2 Town Council Member Lauren Garzone directed Dixon to a Johnston Sun Rise article titled “Mayor: Project promises ‘financial stability,’” published July 30, which featured an interview with Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena, and explored the project’s potential, yet included few concrete details (the mayor wouldn’t confirm whether Amazon was the company proposing the six-story retail distribution facility, but promised the deal would be “very lucrative” for the town).

Dixon read the article, one of several published on the project. Like most attempted summations of the massive development proposed for construction near the intersection of routes 6 and 295, she found many details lacking. Dixon still had questions.

Town Council members said Tuesday night that they also don’t have most of the answers to Dixon’s questions. They assured her, however, that when the details are available, they will be shared with the public.

“So, I read the article and here is my takeaway,” Dixon told Town Council Tuesday night. “There is no timeline or details, documents aren’t in, it will unravel quickly, it’s a great deal but there are no specifics, the company name cannot be released at this time and neither can the tax structure, no mention of environmental or traffic studies and who ordered them, no firm numbers on jobs or what kinds, and no commitment to union labor.”

Russo and Polisena Jr. pointed to traffic and environmental studies available on the Planning Board’s website. The other questions, however, hung in the air.

“Hardly a treasure trove of information,” Dixon said. “In fact, I now have more questions than I did before, but I was told that there would be no future public forum on this topic. That is why I’m standing here tonight and it’s the last thing I have time for, which is why I entrusted this council to responsibly handle important decisions regarding the community.”

Although the Planning Board did thoroughly examine thousands of pages of documents related to the project, they only determined whether the project fit the letter of local zoning and planning laws. And several times during the July 20 public hearing before the Planning Board, Chairman John Laurito referred critical questions asked by members of the public to the Town Council.

“As a businesswoman, I can confidently say that I’ve never entered into any agreement simply relying on the word of another,” Dixon told the board. “I need to know pertinent details of the deal and then, subsequently, see it formalized in writing.”

Dixon presented a list of controversial town development projects, including the Central Landfill.

“In this case, that feeling is amplified when none of the prior town deals have ever had a significantly positive impact on my life or even lowered my taxes,” Dixon told the council. “The lack of transparency about this deal and the potential lack of representation from this council begs the question, can we trust you?”

Johnston residents do get free trash pick-up for hosting the landfill. The landfill will eventually close, however, and some town officials have said they hope Amazon may help fill the town’s future financial gap.

Dixon said she looked up the definition of a town council, and she read what she found aloud: “Specifically, Councils are required to: act as a representative, as informed and responsible decision-makers in the interests of its community.”

Town Council has yet to take a single vote on “Project Schooner.” Russo almost slipped when referencing the project on Tuesday night, beginning the word “Amazon,” but cutting himself short to use the only approved code word for the project: “Schooner.”

“Now there is no formal qualification to be a Town Council member,” Dixon said. “You are inserted into that position under the notion that you will properly serve the very people who put you there.”

Russo stopped Dixon to question her criticism of past developments in town.

“What other municipality in Rhode Island has as much development as Johnston?” Russo asked.

Dixon said she has no problem with development, but wishes the town benefited more from the projects that do come to fruition.

Conley pointed to proposed highway improvements, already slated for 2025, but moved up to accommodate “Project Schooner,” including a median barrier and jug handles on Route 6.

“Johnston residents must have input since we are the ones who will be impacted,” Dixon told the Town Council. “The town has had substantially more time to digest this protect than the residents will ever have and that’s not fair. I’m 100 percent pro-development, but I do have standards. We already carry the burden of the landfill, the recycling center, a windfarm, a solar farm, and the Citizens (Bank) campus and yet my taxes just went up and now there seems to be a strong effort to suppress any public input.”

The last budget approved by Johnston Town Council implemented the first property tax increase in four years.

Town Council members and Dixon tossed some information back and forth. They confirmed that the company, possibly Amazon, would be required to come before the board before any sort of tax break was granted.

Mayor Polisena and his son, the Town Council vice president, have issued slightly different timelines for advertisement of a public meeting dealing with that issue.

The mayor, who has been handling the brunt of negotiations with the unnamed company, has said once he receives a packet of documents from Bluewater, he’ll have the town’s legal counsel review them, and then turn a meeting around quickly, in as little as 48 hours (the minimum time required by state law to advertise a public meeting).

Polisena Jr. said he’d like the meeting advertised at least a week in advance, and clarified his father was simply referring to the minimum time required by law.

“I don’t think we’ve ever held a meeting with just 48 hours notice,” Polisena Jr. said. “That has never happened.”

Polisena Jr. and Russo both assured Dixon that the public will have more opportunity to speak on the project, before the Town Council votes on it; if they vote on it.

“I hope the remarks made by the council vice president were sincere and that everyone should be heard because he was right, this is our town and there are many upset residents who feel that this project is being jammed down their proverbial throats,” Dixon said. “This has created distrust amongst an already skeptical community who has become weary of our ever growing, industrial facade.”

Dixon went way over her allotted three-minute speaking time. She was the second speaker of the night who commanded more than three minutes of Town Council’s time.

Dixon agreed that the successful public address was a win for the uninformed public.

Russo thanked her for her comments and the meeting was adjourned shortly after.


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