Editor's note: The following is the first half of a two-part series looking at this controversial issue, which will go before the planning board on Sept. 16. Later this week, we will take a look at the other side, featuring an interview with the owners of the Glen Ridge Alpaca Farm.
With 500 acres of farmland around Middletown and Portsmouth, Rhode Island Nurseries has a considerable presence on Aquidneck Island.
Established in 1895 by Vanceslaus A. Vanicek, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, the farm has enjoyed consistent expansion of about 100-150 acres per generation, recently adding vegetables to their crop of shrubs and plants, including one of the widest selling "yew' varietals which originated on the farm.
Today, Rhode Island Nurseries is a wholesale grower supplying mostly "woody ornamentals," which are landscape-sized plant and shrub materials to retailers, landscapers and re-wholesalers.
The farm also uses mules to cultivate their fields. The mules, originally brought to the farm from Fort Adams in the 1920s, are "very versatile because they cultivate closer than a tractor can, they are more precise so it means less hand weeding," says Bruce Vanicek, the fourth-generation proprietor of the farm.
In the past year or so, Rhode Island Nurseries has been a topic of discussion around the community, but not because of their plants.
Rhode Island Nurseries is subdividing and selling a piece of their land that is not suitable for farming; however, the subdivision is currently only accessible by one road, which means that an additional access point must be constructed.
This is where the issue becomes emotionally charged, as the proposed emergency access road is a paper road that bisects the Glen Ridge Alpaca Farm, located off Glen Road on Frank Coelho Drive in Portsmouth.
The owners of Glen Ridge Farm, Kevin Tarsagian and Ann Fiore, argue that the construction of this road will disrupt the day-to-day operations of their farm so profoundly that the farm will no longer be viable.
The owners also cite the possibility of other options, which would leave their farm untouched, as a reason for appealing the proposed road.
Vanicek and Rhode Island Nurseries argue that the proposed road is to be built on land that is not owned by Glen Ridge Farm; therefore, they do not technically have the rights to it.
In addition, Vanicek doesn't believe that a gravel road, which is only to be used for emergency purposes, would make the farm not viable.
"I was sympathetic to Kevin and Anne's issues … The bottom line is why can't they continue to farm with a gravel road?," he said.
Vanicek's petition to the town was initially denied, but this decision was over-turned after an appeal on his behalf.
Once the planning board approved his petition, Tarsagian and Fiore made an appeal of their own, which is to be heard by the planning board on Sept. 16. They hope to demonstrate the detrimental effect the proposed road would have on their property, in addition to emphasizing the significance of their farm to the community and the importance of preserving historic places.
Vanicek is fully prepared to appeal to a higher authority if the planning board takes away his approval, he says.
As the owner of a business that has been a mainstay to the island for four generations, Vanicek says he is especially distraught that this whole controversy has portrayed his business in a negative light.
He makes it clear that he does not want to be cast as "the big bad business," especially since the roots of his business run deep into the island's history. His great-grandfather started as a gardener for the now-famous estates of Newport.
Vanicek stresses that Glen Ridge Farm is, indeed, an asset to the community; however, Rhode Island Nurseries is the largest agricultural landowner around and he feels a bit taken for granted.
"We are both assets," says Vanicek. "But, we're just trying to further our business, which is farming, and unless you can keep your farm viable, it will go away."