Town workshop focuses on old highway barn use
The Town Council held a special work session on Monday night to consider the fate of the deteriorating highway barn at Fort Wetherill. The meeting was open to the public and recommendations and suggestions for the future of the building and waterfront property were heard and considered by the council.
The fundamental choices were to:
• Subdivide the property and sell the highway barn portion to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management whose offices are in three buildings at the south end of the town-owned parcel. That would leave the north end available for development.
• Renovate the 5,400-squarefoot building and use it as a revenue generating facility for the town and keep the entire property as a town asset.
• Subdivide the property and sell the parcel north of the highway barn as a prime piece of waterfront real estate, and sell or lease the building portion to private enterprise.
Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Director Michael Sullivan attended the workshop because of the possible impact on the DEM facility at the south end of the property.
Sullivan said, "The DEM tries to be a good neighbor, but when we hear talk about developing anything that causes public intensification near our facilities, it causes us concern."
Sullivan was responding to a slide presentation provided by Town Planner Lisa Bryer and used by Town Administrator Bruce Keiser to present the facility and some of its possible uses as suggested by interested parties.
One suggestion was for the town to keep the entire property and develop the building as a seasonal public function hall with kitchen and food service facilities. Another was to convert the old highway barn into a community meeting space.
An island artist's group expressed interest in developing the building for use as an art gallery with studios, while another recommendation was to rent the building as a reception hall for weddings and banquets to generate revenue for the town. Other suggestions included leasing the building as a public restaurant or community theater.
The cost for renovating the facility and the surrounding site to bring any of the aforementioned recommendations to fruition could be upwards of a million dollars according to the slide presentation.
"Public movement, people movement, and conflicts with people who are recreating, fishing, picnicking, or doing other things concerns us," Sullivan said. "Candidly, it's disconcerting," he added.
Sullivan cautioned against subdivision. He said there were wastewater concerns and environmental issues at stake. "Using the facility for a 200-seat restaurant would be worrisome because restaurants are large water consumers.
He recommended using the facility for aquaculture, research and possible light education. He said that he likes the site the way it is, with few people. The area is ecologically sensitive, and heavy traffic would be burdensome to the fragile environment. He said the DEM might entertain the idea of purchasing the building for future use.
In addition to town staff, 17 Jamestown residents attended the workshop. The consensus of those in attendance was that most of the suggestions for developing the facility for commercial purposes that would intensify public use and attract crowds would have an adverse impact on the surrounding neighborhood as well as the environment. about the costs of restoring the building. A few suggested selling the property, while others thought a long-term lease was a better idea.
Conanicut Marine President Bill Munger suggested developing the facility as a much-needed boat launching area. His suggestion was considered by several to be a good idea.
Councilman Robert Sutton said, "We shouldn't think about things like subdivision until we figure out what to do with the building. I think it would be a horrible direction to think in terms of a Holiday Inn or a wedding and banquet facility. I can't imagine developing the site for anything like that," he added.
However, he did think Sullivan's idea for a research facility, and Munger's suggestion to keep a "working waterfront element" was a good direction to go. "A working waterfront directly related to the bay would make sense," Sutton said.
After everyone in attendance and the council members made their recommendations, Council President Julio DiGiando said that the matter would be a Town Council meeting agenda item and that it would be advertised so more people could be involved in the decision making process.