2007-09-06 / Front Page

What's next for town-owned Ft. Wetherill site?

By Dotti Farrington

Jamestown has several options for use of the old highway barn site at Fort Wetherill now that voters have approved a new barn at Taylor Point.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said it would be up to the town council to decide what to do with the building and property and said he would support a community workshop, conducted by the council, for islanders to discuss possibilities.

"It is a one of a kind location," he said about the location of rugged rock outcroppings on the Atlantic Ocean at the head of Narragansett Bay between the bay's East and West Passages. "We will need a class one appraisal of its value before we look at options with benefits versus costs on what we do with it," Keiser stressed. He said he was not in a position to make a recommendation without the appraisal and further study.

Some citizens and some state officials have expressed opinions in recent years about proposals for use of the old barn site. The subject is also part of the town Comprehensive Plan of Development adopted in 2002 and the subject of a special reuse study in 2005.

"There are old ideas and there are new ideas," Keiser said. "The town council will need to set criteria for appropriate reuse," he said. The state Department of Environmental Management has told the town it is interested in expanding its facilities in a complex of three restored buildings that are adjacent to the old town barn at Fort Wetherill, the town administrator pointed out, and several local groups have made proposals in recent years for conversion of the old barn for various uses.

The DEM's Fish and Wildlife Division operates its Marine Fisheries Center and its 50-foot marine fisheries research vessel from the Fort Wetherill site for oceanographic projects, fish trawl surveys, stock assessments and fish conservation measures.

Keiser emphasized that the discussion about future uses involve the approximately 5,000 square foot building now used for highway purposes and a limited portion of the 3.6 acres of land that it shares with the DEM offices. "The discussion does not include any changes to the boat basin and harbor there," Keiser said.

The site abuts the 58-acre Fort Wetherill State Park that vies for one of the most spectacular natural coastal settings and is recognized nationally as a significant scuba and skin diving area. It is listed as a major scenic and tourist attraction.

Proposals on record, in addition to the DEM goals, include ideas about a banquet hall by some individuals, about an arts center by the Conanicut Island Arts Association, and about expansion of the marina by the Fort Wetherill Boat Owners Association. "Not yet heard are talks about what municipal services might be there. They certainly should be recreation-leisure oriented, but they have not been discussed yet," Keiser said.

He said the decisions to be made all have significant cost factors to be determined. He summarized them as costs to renovate the old barn building and the town's ability and willingness to absorb the costs, as compared with revenue to be realized from a possible sale of the property to a third party, whether it be to the state or to some local party and the benefits to the community from such a decision.

Keiser reported that so far, the town's legal advisors have given opinions that the town charter is silent about the process for sale of municipal properties, suggesting that it would be a council decision, and not a voter action involved.

"The process for transfer of town property will have to be researched and confirmed, I would expect," he said.

The 2002 comprehensive plan provides that the island's features, such as Fort Wetherill, should be recognized for tourism with a focus on having a minimal impact on residents by developing management plans with special attention on provision of areas for commercial fishing boats.

2005 study

In 2005, the town ordered a study on reuse of the building for water-enhanced or water-dependent uses without being a high vehicular traffic generator, but, which affords the most residents the most use of the property.

At that time, it was noted that DEM uses a force-main sewer system in conjunction with a septic system, and there were questions about space for expansion of the septic system, and about limitations for connecting to the town sewer system.

The old barn is surrounded by asphalt, and bordered on one side by a steep bank. Need to convert it to better fit its pristine shoreline setting was listed as a priority with whatever might be done with the building.

Another goal, self-sufficiency, was defined and examples were listed as a seasonal dinner hall, meeting space for municipal and organizational functions, artist studio and art center, and an event center for conferences and parties, including weddings. The study also resulted in a suggested reduction of 44 existing boat slips to create a community landing slip or touch-and-go for ferry or water taxi service.

The study noted that limited parking options would require alternate transportation; and shared used of the existing 36 DEM parking slots.

Response then to the study included approvals, as well as suggestions for more water-based uses, including a marine museum; and concerns about being in a flood plain.

Wetherill history

Fort Wetherill has served as a major defensive fort to protect Narragansett Bay. The first forts were built there during the Revolutionary War. They were not armed or garrisoned but the location became a popular picnic setting and artist's motif during the 1800s. Fort Wetherill itself was built at the turn of 1900 and was active for noncombatant service during both the First and Second World Wars. Although it was not tested in battle, it helped to establish security during the world's two greatest conflicts.

The eastern end of the Fort Wetherill site, at the cove, was used for buildings or sheds to store underwater cables that were strung across a narrow part of the East Passage to the Newport shore. The one-story building, now the town barn, was a submarine mine warehouse built in 1940.

Early in 1946, Fort Wetherill was deactivated. The fort was transferred from the Defense Department to the General Services Administration in 1960. In 1972, most of the land was transferred from the federal government to the State of Rhode Island as part of a federal program turning surplus property over to recreational use. In 1974, the town acquired ownership of the 3.6 acre basin area from the federal government.

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