2010-03-04 / Front Page

Town uncertain about Ft. Wetherill property

Council reviews several options
By Phil Zahodiakin

The former town highway barn at Ft. Wetherill is no longer needed now that the new facility is in operation at Taylor Point, and the town must now decide what to do with the dilapidated World War II-era structure. The state Department of Environmental Management would like to obtain the building and expand its footprint at Ft. Wetherill. Photo by Jeff McDonough The former town highway barn at Ft. Wetherill is no longer needed now that the new facility is in operation at Taylor Point, and the town must now decide what to do with the dilapidated World War II-era structure. The state Department of Environmental Management would like to obtain the building and expand its footprint at Ft. Wetherill. Photo by Jeff McDonough The Town Council last week held a workshop to acquaint itself with the options for selling 3.6 acres of Jamestown land at Ft. Wetherill – but the future of the waterfront property remains shrouded in “fog.”

Much of the Feb. 24 meeting was devoted to comments from Michael Sullivan, who heads the R.I. Dept. of Environmental Management. The department already has an aquatic research laboratory adjacent to the town land.

DEM has previously expressed a strong interest in acquiring the adjoining property, and Sullivan said that neither DEM’s concept for an expanded research presence or its need has waned.

“We would like to assemble the core of our marine resources group” at Ft. Wetherill, he said.

Other members of the group include aquaculture specialists, who are based at the DEM facility in Jerusalem.

“Ft. Wetherill,” Sullivan said, “offers the department a wonderful opportunity to have a highly efficient operation with everyone there.”

Sullivan, who hailed the Ft. Wetherill site as a “miraculous space” for DEM, added that the department still needs “shore-side support structures for the fledgling aquaculture industry in our state.”

A local group, Jamestown Aquaculture Movement, has proposed to occupy the old highway barn as a “one-stop” resource for growers seeking to start and maintain shellfi sh farms. JAM, however, has not offered any money for its use of the barn – at least not initially.

Although JAM principal Philip Larson didn’t attend the workshop, Sullivan said DEM would be willing to share the property and the space in the highway barn – which will require extensive renovations – with local aquaculturists.

Aquaculture facilities are best suited to waterfront sites because their shipments of shells and shellfi sh larvae come by boat. Consequently, DEM is much more interested in the marine frontage of Parcel B than the highway barn itself.

Parcel B includes 84,468 square feet of the total town acreage at Ft. Wetherill. Parcel A, which encom- passes 80,180 square feet of undeveloped land, lies immediately west of Parcel B. Whether the department acquired both parcels, or just Parcel B, it remains to be seen how DEM would pay for them.

Sullivan flatly stated that DEM would not consider leasing its parcel of choice – Parcel B – because departmental rules preclude renting any structure that requires renovation. He was far less definitive, however, in his remarks on a cash purchase.

“Several pots of money have come and gone” during the years since DEM first expressed an interest in acquiring the waterfront land, Sullivan said, implying that a cash transaction is not beyond the realm of possibility.

However, in his April 1, 2009, letter to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, Sullivan wrote, “DEM is proposing to offer land that may be suitable for future town wind power generation.”

The only state-owned land on Conanicut Island that’s potentially suitable for a wind turbine lies within Beavertail State Park, but the promontory was eliminated from consideration because of its distance from the grid.

The only other state-owned land that’s potentially feasible for Jamestown wind turbines would be Dutch Island – but it remains to be seen if the council will have any interest in re-opening the wind turbine debate.

It also remains to be seen if the council would vote to accept a land trade in lieu of cash – whether or not the land offered by the state is suitable for a wind turbine.

Moreover, there are two other Ft. Wetherill options on the table: Selling both parcels to Conanicut Marine – or selling Parcel B to Conanicut Marine and Parcel A to a real estate developer.

Conanicut Marine Services last year offered $2.7 million for both parcels; $1.1 million solely for Parcel A; or $1.5 million solely for the waterfront parcel, where the company would build a boat ramp suitable for hauling and launching vessels without a crane – including state-owned vessels using Ft. Wetherill as their “home port.”

Conanicut Marine President Bill Munger attended the workshop and, in his brief remarks, assured council members that he does not necessarily need a building for his intents and purposes – and that he would be “interested in partnering with the state of Rhode Island if a [plan for a] boat ramp into the cove could be worked out.”

The Conanicut proposal was singled out by resident Frank Meyer as “the only one of the three deals on the table that favors the taxpayer. The other two are rip-offs. The taxpayers were cheated in 1980 when the town leased 20 acres of land to the state for 80 years – with nothing in return.”

Taxpayers were also cheated when the state confiscated Newport Street, which was once a boundary of the Ft. Wetherill Army base, for “nothing in return,” Meyer said.

“If the town is unable to find a use for those properties that benefits local residents,” Meyer added, “then they should get us a fair market price so we can recoup the $160,000 we paid for the land. A land swap doesn’t get us any income.”

During the Nov. 16 meeting of the current council – the first for its newly seated members – Keiser identified the sale or lease of town land at Ft. Wetherill as one of the top three front-burner issues awaiting action.

However, Keiser told the Press that a decision is not necessarily urgent.

“I think that time is on the town’s side,” he said. “Obviously, we’re in an economically depressed real estate market. Therefore, the values that would be attached to the properties at this time are lower than what the norms for the island would be. So, in working out any agreement in today’s environment, we’re sort of clouded by that reality.

“There isn’t any need from the standpoint of town use that would make us move now rather than later,” Keiser continued, “and we don’t need to rely on an infusion of revenue to support town operations or capital spending. So, the revenue input that we will eventually realize if we sell the property or lease it is not something we need at the present time. …All those facts suggest that we should take a deliberate approach.”

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