Inside Town Government

Engineer/Sewer Authority Office

By Ron Scopelliti

In Smithfield, very little goes on above ground, underground, or underwater that doesn’t go through the office of Town Engineer Kevin Cleary. The list of the office’s duties presented on the town web page is a paragraph so thick with information, it’s difficult to get from start to finish in one reading. Fortunately, Cleary has a knack for explaining the duties of his office in plain English.

“We work hand-in-hand with a lot of the other departments: Public Works, Building, Zoning, Planning, and Engineering – we’re kind of the four horsemen of the community, making sure that things don’t run awry.”

Cleary and his staff of three also have to work closely with the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT) and Department of Environmental Management (DEM). That’s in addition to administering the Town’s Sewer Authority.

The office handles problems of all sizes, Cleary says: “Some of the functions we serve in the Town Engineer’s office are plan review and permit application review for land development projects, whether they be anything as small as a single-family addition, up to large-scale commercial developments like the Crossing at Smithfield.

“The thing I like to try to do the most when reviewing these projects is to try to see what problems are going to come down the road as a result,” he notes. “What could this impact when this gets built? What could be some consequences?”

Major projects on the horizon include the Stillwater Village development, and the controversial Churchill and Banks proposal on Esmond Street.

“All the aspects of those projects need to be vetted,” Cleary says, “and the technical end of that comes from our department.”

He also has a responsibility that goes beyond the technical realm – making sure the developments look good.

“There’s a landscape ordinance this town has, which is a very unique thing to Smithfield,” he says. “Not many communities have a landscape ordinance.” His office has to make sure that both residential and commercial projects are aesthetically pleasing and that “they put back some of what they take away.” This includes preserving or enhancing buffers create screens between dis-similar land uses.

Some of the department’s responsibilities are more obvious, such as maintaining and enhancing the town’s infrastructure.

“The attention to infrastructure is more important than it’s ever been in the history of this community,” Cleary says. This includes bridges, road surfaces, intersection re-alignment, DOT projects that take place in town, and dams.

“On the roads and pavement sides we work hand-in-hand with Public Works,” Cleary says, calling DPW the unsung heroes of the town, and crediting their service, despite not having a permanent director for the past 2.5 years.

“The deputy Public Works Director [Charles Walsh] has really stepped up to the plate and more than met the mark on so many occasions,” he says.

Recent bridge projects included assisting DOT with their rebuild of the Capron Road bridge, and conducting their own rebuild of the Mountaindale Road bridge last year. For the latter, they took into account the bridge’s long-time use as a fishing platform, adding extra-wide sidewalks for safety.

“It came out great. It was exactly the way we wanted it – not just some ala carte template,” Cleary says.

The town also installed a new pedestrian bridge at Stillwater Rd. last year, making allowances for Georgiaville’s historical significance as a classic Rhode Island System mill village.

“The Smithfield Historical Preservation Commission had some input they wanted us to consider in the final layout, and I think we more than met the bar with that one,” Cleary says. “It’s got that classic historical flair to it.”

The added bonus is that the pedestrian bridge was being disposed of by DOT, and they offered it to any town interested. Now half of it is in Georgiaville, while the other half is being used in Deerfield Park.

The Town Engineer’s office also plays a role in maintaining Smithfield’s numerous dams, five of which are high hazard. High hazard does not refer to the likelihood that a dam will fail, or to its condition. Instead, it refers to the probable consequences that would occur if the dam did fail.

“We coordinate with four of those five high-hazard dams annually to plan, draw down, and redraw in the fall and spring respectively,” Cleary says. “A function of that is not just so they can maintain their lakes around their edge, but a function of that is actually dam management and watershed management to reduce the impact of flooding.” Having available space in the reservoirs for water storage, in case of heavy spring rains, minimizes this impact.

The last major dam repair project involved structure improvements to the spillway and outlet control of the Georgiaville Pond Dam, which date back to 1896. The improvements took place over a three-month period in 2014.

The Town Engineer’s Office also doubles as the Sewer Authority Office.

“The Town of Smithfield has a 3 ½ million-gallon-a day wastewater treatment facility, which is probably one of the biggest assets this community has,” Cleary says. Though the plant, which opened in 1978, is operated by contractors Veolia, Cleary’s office oversees the operation to make sure it’s being operated to the agreed-upon specs. He notes that Veolia has “been a very reliable, committed company.”

The office also oversees the 12 pumping stations and 85 miles of gravity-feed pipes that deliver sewage to the plant. The treatment plant is necessitated by the town’s geography.

“We’re geographically unique,” Cleary says, noting that the town is not able to convey much of its sewage to the Narragansett Bay Commission facilities. “There are large topographical obstacles that prevent us from getting there.”

The water that leaves the plant after being purified to DEM and EPA standards, empties into the Woonasquatucket River about a half-mile upstream from Smithfield’s border with North Providence and Johnston.

The Woonasquatucket is also the final destination for the town’s stormwater runoff, which is channeled through a completely different system than the sewage, but also has to meet environmental standards, and is also the responsibility of the Town Engineer’s Office.

Storm water that runs into the river off hard surfaces like roofs and pavement carries significantly more pollutants than water that’s allowed to filter through porous ground. Ways to reduce these pollutants include increasing greenspace, reducing pavement, adding green infrastructure along roadsides, and creating bioswales – landscape elements that manage storm water by slowing it and filtering it.

This was taken into account when the School Administration Building parking lot was repaved several years ago. The paved area was decreased from 10,000 square feet to 7,500, greenspace was added, and a bioswale was built at the end of the lot, eliminating the runoff that used go straight off the pavement, and downhill towards the river. It not only results in cleaner runoff, but reduces the chance of flooding at the adjacent VFW hall.

The office also recently used a $185,000 grant to infiltrate runoff from Log Road and Mann School Road through a nearby sand pit. Cleary says this drastically reduces the runoff into Stump Pond, not only improving water quality, but reducing the number of times that a backhoe has to be brought in to clear sand buildup in the crosspipe under Log Road.

Those looking for more information on the stormwater and sewer system can access the Geographical Information System (GIS), available through the town’s web page. Over the past few years, Cleary has added detailed information on stormwater drainage and the sewer system to the interactive, multi-layer map. It offers a unique glimpse into what Cleary calls “a unique environment.”

“ Smithfield’s a community that’s on the edge,” he says, straddling the gap between urban and rural.

“That gap in the middle,” he says, “is really what makes us unique because we have a lot of the flavor of the country, with a lot of the convenience of the city. We need to make sure we strike that balance with any project that we have to consider or any developer that proposes a sweetheart deal for the town. We have to make sure it’s the right fit for Smithfield if we’re going to be in this for the long term.”