SMITHFIELD — For years, neighbors have complained about criminal activity on an empty lot in South Smithfield. Last week, the Town Council decided to block access to it.
Catherine and Andy Webster live with their three young children toward the end of Holding Street, a residential street that runs west from South Bright Leaf Boulevard. Just beyond their house, the street continues a short distance to a private, wooded lot that the Websters say is a magnet for bad behavior.
Three years ago, after similar complaints, the lot’s owners erected a gate where the dead-end street meets the private lot. Last week, the council agreed to move the gate to where the street begins its short run to the lot.
Since they moved to Holding Street in 2009, the Websters say, they’ve struggled with traffic coming and going from wooded lot. Sometimes people come to fish at a nearby pond; the Websters say they’re OK with that.
But they have found signs of less-wholesome activities – condom wrappers, malt-liquor containers and drug paraphernalia.
Catherine Webster said children play in the lot and she doesn’t want them to put themselves in danger or stumble upon adult activity.
“This is not a place where kids should come by and play, but I don’t think parents know that,” she said.
The spot has also become a place where people discard garbage, old appliances, even heavy equipment. And many people who walk their dogs there don’t pick up after their pets.
“It’s a completely unregulated area, and people are abusing it,” Andy Webster said.
The pond and adjoining land, the Websters add, have become dumping grounds for hunters and anglers, who dump buckets of fish heads and deer guts.
Earlier this month, Andy took his kids into the woods to see a teepee some teens had built out of tree branches. He was overwhelmed by a fecal odor that was too strong to be a child’s diaper. Then he noticed the surface of the pond bubbling.
“I’d hate to see what was at the bottom of that lake,” he said.
History of problems
J.D. Wilson built the pond and owns the private lot. These days, his son, Jim, handles the family’s property.
In 2010, Town Council member Perry Harris, who lives in South Smithfield, persuaded the Wilsons to erect a gate where the street meets their lot. It was one of his first acts as a councilman, and he said neighbors seemed grateful for it.
“It really stopped a lot of things from going on, and they feel more comfortable because you don’t have people coming through at all hours of the night,” Harris said. He said he was under the impression the gate had solved the problem.
But that still left the stretch of street between the Websters’ property and the lot. Now drivers are turning off the street before they hit the gate, heading into the woods next to the pond.
The woods are a blind spot for passing police patrols. Harris said some people might be using that to their advantage.
The Websters, who suspect the spot is a destination for drug dealers or prostitutes and their clients, call the police. But cars don’t stay there more than 10 to 15 minutes, they said. By the time police can get there, the vehicles are usually gone.
Andy said he often confronts people he sees but can’t do much to stop them.
“This is private property,” he said. “I don’t have any more right than anyone else to tell them to leave.”
Andy said Jim Wilson had given him permission to shoo people away, but Catherine said she’s worried about the people her husband runs into.
“You don’t know what kind of people they are or what they might do to you,” she said.
A second gate
Last week, Harris and a few town employees checked on the property again. Public-works director Lenny Branch promised to move the gate up.
“Maybe that’ll help the police out a little bit because they can see it from the main road,” Branch said.
Catherine said the gate should act as a deterrent – people who want the privacy of the woods will have to park in front of their house.
Andy said he fully expects people to park in front of his house, but he’s still thankful for the gate.
“I can see it could be more of a problem for us to police,” he said, “but at least I’d have some control over it.”