2009-01-15 / Front Page

Ft. Wetherill commercial development opposed

By Sam Bari

Using the town's highway barn site at Ft. Wetherill as an aquaculture facility was one of several ideas discussed at Monday night's workshop on possible uses for the property. Many residents said they did not want to see the area used for heavy commercial development.

The public workshop offered a forum on the future of the deteriorating highway barn at Ft. Wetherill, now that the new public works facility is nearly complete.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser started the session with a slide presentation that outlined proposals for the old barn and related development costs. The proposals and suggestions came from island residents and groups, as well as off-island parties that had expressed interest in using the 3.6-acre waterfront property and 5,400-square foot building.

Keiser reminded those present that the parcel was zoned for public use, had town water, but no ISDS or sewer hookup. He said that the nearest town sewer hookup was approximately a mile away and would cost nearly $1 million to install. Several people suggested that the facility could not support an ISDS system for intensive public use.

The property would also require Coastal Resource Management Council approval for any construction within 200 feet of a coastal feature and a Historic Preservation Commission review and approval of building renovation plans.

Suggested uses for the building include, among other proposals, a restaurant, a theater, a center for the arts and a banquet and wedding facility. Development costs are estimated at $1 to $1.5 million.

The slide presentation offered further land use options that included sale of the property for use as a commercial marina, a boat storage and repair business, or a condominium development.

The property could also be subdivided and sold as two lots. The 80,000-square foot parcel on the west side of Ft. Wetherill Road could be sold for the development of a private residence. The remainder of the property, that would include the highway barn site, could be sold to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for research, or be retained by the town and leased as a public- or privately-owned aquaculture business, or as a boat storage warehouse and deep water ramp.

The 42 slips in the boat basin are presently utilized by town residents, Keiser said.

After the slide presentation, Town Council President Julio DiGiando opened the meeting to public input.

Arthur Milot of Walnut Street said that he wants a Jamestown project for Jamestown people. He said, "I would hope that we (the town) would not go for the last dollar or the highest dollar as our first consideration." He also said that he did not want the building used as an off-island attraction that would increase traffi c and bring the problems that come with crowds. "It would disrupt the tranquility of the area," he said.

Bill Munger of Cole Street said, "I agree with Arthur (Milot). Waterfront property is way too precious, and I would ask that you consider projects that have water-related use and that the town of Jamestown will benefit."

Chris Powell of Mount Hope Avenue, a recently retired DEM wildlife biologist who worked at the Ft. Wetherill DEM offices, said, "The town should not give up full interest in the property. But before anything is done, we should determine whether any of that parcel is suitable for an ISDS system."

He also said that he felt strongly that the property should be considered for a water-dependant use. He suggested that the town and the state explore using the asset for something that could be beneficial to both, and take advantage of the waterfront location.

Jerry McIntyre, of Newport Street, an attorney and former town council president, said, "You can call them what you want, but all of the suggestions and proposals are for commercial enterprise." He said that the liquor, bars and wedding reception facilities were for intensive commercial use, "And that is not what was contemplated when the town acquired the property for municipal purposes."

McIntyre agreed that the facility should be considered for water-related use. He said that commercial development did not fit in with the town's comprehensive plan. He suggested that any commercial development would be disruptive to the residential area surrounding the property.

Frank Meyer, of 141 Southwest Ave., made the only suggestion for selling the property for commercial development to ease the burden on taxpayers. He said that Jamestown should share the beautiful ocean spot with others and at the same time use it as a source of revenue. He suggested development as a "Holiday Inn" type of banquet facility that could be rented for weddings and other affairs.

Phil Larson, of Melrose Avenue, is a chef who is interested in developing the facility for aquaculture, a hatchery for oysters, clams, scallops, and a place for cultivating seaweed. He gave the council members a detailed written proposal that included using the facility for education as well as a seed farm. He would like to see DEM involved, as well as New England Tech for developing an aquaculture education program.

Mike Rice, a professor of fisheries and aquaculture at URI, supported Larson's proposal, suggesting that the facility was perfect for an aquaculture seed farm. He said that the personnel required to produce millions of seed would be around six or seven people. Consequently, the impact on the area would be minimal.

Rice said that the output of the hatchery could be enormous. He explained that millions of seed could be transported in a cooler in the trunk of a car. He also said that any fears of an aquaculture seed farm being an industrial enterprise requiring large numbers of personnel, trucks, and machinery are unwarranted. "That's not what it is," he said.

Susan Little asked Phil Larson about the economics of the aquaculture business, and the extent of the renovations that would be required, as well as who would foot the bill. She also asked how the Ft. Wetherill boat owners who had slips in the basin would be affected.

Larson answered her questions, and assured the audience that the business end of his proposal was sound. He also said that the marina would not be affected at all.

Dave Pritchard, a teacher and commercial fisherman, supported the idea of using the property for aquaculture.

DEM Director Michael Sullivan said, "Larson's proposal for a hatchery fit in with the DEM facility that has offices adjacent to the town-owned site." He said that DEM favored uses for the abutting property that would not increase the number of personnel and have a negative impact on the area.

Bill Geib, an aquaculturist living on Battery Lane, said that he spends $80,000 to $100,000 a year on seed for his business, and that "a source of seed stock from a Narragansett Bay facility would be a tremendous help to my business."

DiGiando concluded the workshop by saying that the issue would be a Town Council agenda item at an upcoming meeting and that the input from town residents would be seriously considered in the decision making process.

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