2009-06-25 / Front Page

Town Council discusses sale of Ft. Wetherill property

By Tyler Will

The Jamestown Town Council discussed selling or leasing 3.6 acres of highly coveted shorefront, town-owned land at Ft. Wetherill during a special preliminary meeting at Town Hall on Monday night.

“We are not in a position to make any decision, this is a workshop only,” Council President Julio DiGiando said at the beginning of the meeting.

The property in question is the location of the old highway garage, which was built in the early 1900s. Since a new garage is being built, the town no longer needs the land and is willing to look at selling it, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said.

The council is considering three proposals: one from the state Department of Environmental Management, one from Conanicut Marine Services and one from the Jamestown Aquaculture Group.

The town could divide the land in two ways. The town may subdivide the lot into a vacant lot and a waterfront property with the old highway garage on it; another division could be one parcel of land, which includes the vacant lot and the waterfront property.

Offers are for $2.7 million for the entire piece of land, $1.5 million for the waterfront and garage portion and $1.1 million for the vacant lot alone. The DEM has offered to swap land at Beavertail, where the town is thinking about installing a wind turbine to generate electricity.

“I think the town has an interesting choice here,” Keiser said after the meeting. “I think potentially it could be a grand slam.”

Each of the plans from the bidders provides benefits to the town and region, Keiser said.

JAM wants to promote shell fishing, which the state has wanted to do for some years, the DEM wants to build a research lab and consolidate several operations throughout South County and CMS wants to build a public deep-water ramp, which would offer valuable marine services for the region, the council said. In addition, the town will reap financial benefits.

When taking proposals, the town considered the impact on the nearby quiet neighborhood, waterdependent use, wastewater disposal, financial return and several other criteria. The town wanted to avoid excessive commercial use and, consequently, a wedding and banquet facility was rejected, Keiser said. The town is also awaiting soil tests from URI to see what sort of wastewater treatment could be built on the site, Keiser said.

Councilor Robert Sutton said the parties could combine interests, and install a boat ramp, promote shell fishing and build a research lab.

“There is not any reason to believe that a boat ramp could not fit within the confines of Fort Wetherill,” Sutton said. He proposed leasing the land to the DEM, because the state has a precedent of restoring land it leases, while the town could maintain ownership of the land. The town could not afford to restore the land by itself because it would probably cost about $1 million, he said. After the meeting, representatives from JAM and CMS informally agreed to work with each other for a property solution.

Councilor Barbara Szepatowski said the town needs money for projects that many on the council are passionate about, including roads, bike paths, baseball fields and renovations to the recreation center. She said the town has a “passive ability” to manage its assets, and should not keep the land. The question should be posed to voters on the ballot in the next election, she said. After speaking with DEM officials, Szepatowski said the DEM can come up with “some money” to buy the land.

“My view is of course I will go with whatever everyone else wants, but I think the voters need to weigh in on this,” Szepatowski said.

Councilor Bill Kelly said the town should maintain the riparian rights to the land.

“I think that is something we have to have a very good handle on,” he said.

DiGiando said he still needed information to make an informed decision, and after the meeting he said he needed to know where the boat ramp would go, if an ISDS would be feasible on the second vacant lot and what the terms of a lease would be.

After the meeting, Keiser said he thought the best thing for the town would be to subdivide the lot and sell the vacant lot. The town could maintain ownership of the waterfront land and garage, let the state restore it and then get cash value for the vacant lot.

When the council asked for resident remarks, Jamestown resident Richard Colastano advised the town not to sell the property, because it “will only escalate in value,” pointing out that the town bought it for $115,000 years ago, and is now facing a seven-figure offer.

“What they are talking about over there is going to be pocket change compared to what that place is going to be worth in 20 years,” Colastano said.

After the meeting, Keiser called keeping land and selling it later “land banking,” and said it is a common practice. But he said he would have to think more about it before making an opinion on whether Jamestown should “land bank” or not.

Frank Meyer, another resident, said the DEM offer to swap land is “fishy,” because though the council said the DEM is willing to buy the land, the state is in deep debt. In addition, the town already owns land at Beavertail where they could put the windmill. “I question the old promises that are made to us through the DEM,” Meyer said.

The council said DEM is funded mostly by federal dollars. When asked for comment, the DEM did not return calls by press time.

The town will meet again in about a month to further discuss what to do with the land.

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