What’s in a name? Johnston board OKs ‘Project Schooner’ plan, but no mention of Amazon

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As Jeff Bezos shot into space, the company he founded attempted to land a new retail distribution facility on a 196-acre Johnston woodland parcel.

The agenda for Tuesday night’s Johnston Planning Board meeting did not mention the word “Amazon.” The world’s richest man did not attend the meeting, but his behemoth retail empire was the elephant in the room.

“I feel the whole thing has been a big smokescreen,” said Johnston resident Michael Simone, a former Town Council member sitting in the audience. “Why don’t they just say it’s an Amazon [facility]? I don’t think people realize the magnitude of this project.”

The applicant was listed on the agenda as Bluewater Property Group, a New York City and Pennsylvania-based firm “focused exclusively on the industrial real estate sector across the Northeastern United States, specializing in the entitlement, acquisition, development, financing, and leasing of logistics properties,” according to its website.

“I feel it’s a done deal,” Simone said. “I don’t see how this is good for the town.”

Bluewater refers to its proposal to build a six-story retail distribution facility with a ground floor area of approximately 823,522 square feet, and a total area of approximately 3,864,972 square feet, only as “Project Schooner.”

No Bluewater representatives would say the word “Amazon” at the hearing.

The codename “Project Schooner,” according to several town officials who spoke under condition of anonymity, refers to what may be Amazon’s largest facility on the planet once it’s built.

“It is kind of ironic that Jeff Bezos is trying to get to space while we’re here, looking at something that’s possibly going to be an Amazon facility,” Planning Board Chairman John Laurito said after the meeting. “It’s been said that it’s an Amazon facility, but I’ve never been told that directly.”

Despite the veil of secrecy, the Planning Board accepted Bluewater’s preliminary plan Tuesday night with a unanimous vote. The proposal will now move on to Town Council, where many Johnston residents are hoping to learn details beyond the site map, traffic studies and storm water mitigation.

More than 160 people attended Tuesday’s more than four-hour hearing at the Johnston Senior Center.

Fire Chief Peter J. Lamb attended to help keep track of the number of attendees, with an assistant at the door who counted people as they entered and left the building.

The fire code only allows 230 occupants in the Senior Center at one time, and Lamb said he was prepared to shut the doors if necessary.

More than 100 of the attendees were members of local building trade unions.

An electric sign-paneled truck parked in the lot outside flashed messages like “Rhode Island Building Trades Unions SUPPORT PROJECT SCHOONER” and “Economic Development = GOOD LOCAL UNION JOBS.”

According to the Planning Board agenda, Bluewater was “seeking approval of the major land development Preliminary Plan and the granting of and reaffirmation of dimensional variances from certain provisions of the Zoning Ordinance pursuant to Unified Development Review.”

Bluewater also requested “waivers from certain requirements of the Land Development & Subdivision Review Regulations and (requested) that the Final Review be delegated to staff.”

All of Bluewater’s requests were granted by several unanimous Planning Board votes. At the end of the more than four-hour marathon meeting, some board members and a few attendees issued a round of applause.

The “major land development” is planned for a stretch of mostly upland forested terrain at 2120 Hartford Ave. (Route 6), just west of the intersection with Interstate 295.

Paul J. Bannon, an associate with the Lincoln firm BETA, testified on the applicant’s behalf regarding planned traffic improvements in the area.

He said many roads surrounding the facility will be made safer, with the addition of a jersey barrier down the center of Route 6, new traffic lights and jughandles.

At least one business, an auto body shop, will be acquired, as well as strips of land from several properties fronting the roadways, Bannon said.

The state Department of Transportation had planned some of the improvements for 2025, Bannon testified, but the applicant has pledged to work with the state to make road upgrades sooner, coinciding with the project.

Bannon said the changes to surrounding roads will provide a “great enhancement of public safety.”

A stretch of Belfield Drive will be “re-aligned,” Bannon said. The road will be routed around a historic cemetery.

The development lot’s proximity to Interstate 295 was a major selling point for developers. Town officials hope the project may help secure long-term financial stability for the town.

Nicole Reilly, a civil engineer with DiPrete Engineering, told the Planning Board that the retail distribution facility will occupy less than 10 percent of the overall site, and employee parking, streets and truck parking will occupy another 21 percent of the land.

She said 43 percent of the site, including woodlands and wetlands, will remain “untouched.” Protected wetlands occupy approximately 21 percent of the site, and the development required permits and approval from the state Department of Environmental Management.

Reilly told the board that the developers are “not proposing to clear-cut the entire frontage of the parcel.”

Critics fear an increase in noise, light, traffic and destruction of wildlife habitat may be a price too high to pay.

Bluewater witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing estimated traffic on local roads may swell by an additional 500 trucks per day, plus the vehicles of around 1,000 workers commuting to and from the facility.

“This will directly affect me,” said Red Godin of Christopher Drive. “But I still believe in democracy. That’s why I’m here.”

Godin held a large white sign during the hearing. In black letters, his protest declared: “We don’t want Amazon to ruin our Town of Johnston.”

Godin owns Giant Stride Dive Shop in Warwick and said he drives past the proposed site several times each day. He recalled long delays during construction of the huge Citizens Bank campus nearby.

“While they were building Citizens Bank, it took me an hour to get to work every day,” he said.

When he testified, he ended by asking a pointed question: “I want to know how this is going to benefit the citizens of Johnston.”

Planning Board members said that question will need to be answered by Town Council.

Johnston resident John Dubois, of Belfield Drive, worries about displaced wildlife encroaching into nearby neighborhoods.

“I disagree with this whole thing,” he said. “Route 6 is too busy for that location. We’ve got black bears running around. They should build this thing in the industrial park, or near the landfill.”

Dubois raised his hand to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“Why do we have to help the big corporations, the Amazons of the world?” Dubois testified after taking an oath to tell the truth. “They have put a lot of small businesses out of business.”

Alvin Reyes, a Johnston resident and president/membership development coordinator for Local Union 99, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, also testified at the hearing.

He said he loves taking his children around town and showing off the projects he helped build.

“There are 100 electricians in Johnston alone that could work on this project,” Reyes said. “This could catapult us to a whole new level.”

Representatives from at least five other building trades unions also testified, voicing full support for the project.

One Planning Board member, Robert Pingitore, clapped loudly after each union leader testified.

Attorney John J. Bolton represented Bluewater at the meeting. He interviewed “expert witnesses” provided by the applicant.

A week before the hearing, Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena refused to discuss the details of the proposal.

“I have no comment on that right now,” he said when asked why the planned facility has been code-named “Project Schooner.”

“The Planning Board needs to make an independent decision based on the facts,” he said. “Whoever attends the meeting, they should listen to the facts, look at all the testimony. I still remember my mom telling me to take out a pad, draw a line down the center, and list the pros and cons. Don’t listen to social media rumors.”

Polisena did not attend Tuesday night’s hearing.

Roughly a dozen men and women attended the hearing representing Bluewater and DiPrete Engineering. Around half testified on behalf of the applicant.

Scott Rabideau, a wildlife expert and President of Natural Resource Services, based in Harrisville, told the board that the project would lead to the loss of around “60 acres of forested uplands.”

“There is a loss of habitat,” he admitted.

However, Rabideau expects the displaced wildlife to relocate to other areas of the land that will remain mostly untouched.

He estimated the loss of hardwood forest due to the project will be just under 18 percent of the full 196-acre parcel, and wetlands in the area will be unharmed by the project.

Bolton began his presentation by reminding the board that the land in question is currently zoned B3-Interchange Business, which is “tailored for exactly this type of use.”

After the hearing was adjourned, Bolton collected his materials from a testimony table in front of the Planning Board and a stenographer, and prepared to leave.

When asked directly, the law partner with the Providence firm Hinckley Allen would not identify Amazon as the company looking to build in Johnston.

“My client is Bluewater Property,” he said. “That’s who I’m representing.”

According to the company’s website, Bluewater “successfully developed, acquired, managed and sold in excess of $10 billion of value and 130 million (square feet) of industrial assets over the past 30 years.”

Approached after the hearing, A. Donald Chase, a Bluewater Property Group partner, also refused to identify the client looking to build in Johnston.

“We’re not going to comment to the press about the project,” he said. “I’ll just reiterate again, we’re not going to make a comment identifying them.”

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