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Neighbors battle family of McKee’s top aide over plan to build on wetlands

Target 12

CUMBERLAND, R.I. (WPRI) — Cumberland town leaders and residents are pitted against the family of the governor’s top aide and the R.I. Department of Environmental Management as they battle over a contested wetlands property.

Cumberland officials filed a legal complaint in R.I. Superior Court on July 29, seeking an injunction to block the state’s approval of a plan to develop the 5,600-square-foot lot at 45 Canning St. The property is 93% wetlands, and sits at the bottom of two hills. Residents say it soaks up much of the flood-prone neighborhood’s rainwater.

In 2019, DEM rejected a previous plan to build a house on the Canning Street parcel put forward by Tony Silva, who is now Gov. Dan McKee’s chief of staff. When a new application was filed earlier this year, Cumberland officials called the idea of developing the parcel “astonishing.”

But DEM approved the plan on June 3. Neighbors question why agency officials changed their minds, and why they made the decision without first holding a public hearing.

“To all of a sudden have it approved with no meeting — we’re lucky that we even really found out,” said Tiffany Pendleton, who lives on Canning Street.

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Silva declined an interview request from Target 12. But in a statement, he said he first signed a purchase and sales agreement to buy the property from its former owner in 2017 under the condition that he could build a house on it.

“We assigned the purchase and sales agreement for the Canning Street property to our son, Ross Silva, in April of 2020 so he could build a home on the site,” Silva said. “As of April 2020, my wife and I have had no financial interest in the Canning Street property.”

The younger Silva closed on the lot July 14 after DEM approved the project, paying $17,500.

“Would DEM have approved it in my name or my neighbors?” asked Amy Brayton, another Canning Street resident. “Or is it just because this person is trying to buy it?”

In 2019, when the property’s former owner submitted her initial application to alter the wetlands on behalf of Silva, neighbors sent letters objecting to the proposal, citing flooding concerns. The town planning director called the proposal to destroy the wetlands “extremely excessive” and “unreasonable.”

DEM denied the application at the time, calling the town’s objections “substantive.”

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Then this past March, neighbors and town leaders learned the application for 45 Canning St. had been revised and resubmitted. They sent 10 more letters objecting.

“My fear … if this is modified or altered in any bit, I’m going to flood,” Pendleton said.

Cumberland officials weighed in against the proposal once again, arguing the proposed drainage system would only benefit the house at 45 Canning St., not the neighbors.

But in June, the DEM gave the application the green light without a public hearing.

“The applicant revised the original proposal to address the specific problem of flooding,” Michael Healey, a spokesperson for DEM, told Target 12. “The public comments received all pertained to flooding, which the applicant addressed in the revised application.”

Healey went on to say the agency determined the revised application’s stormwater design wouldn’t add to the neighborhood flooding issues or harm local wildlife.

At a news conference last month, 12 News asked McKee whether his chief of staff’s family got special treatment from DEM. “That’s not the case here,” McKee said. “So process was followed as far as I know.”

Kate McPherson, a Narragansett Bay river keeper with the nonprofit Save the Bay, told Target 12 that the development of any wetlands can have negative effects.

“One of the big reasons we have a Freshwater Wetlands Act, and why we regulate where wetlands can be developed and where they can’t be developed, is to prevent flooding issues,” McPherson said.

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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