2010-05-13 / Front Page

Hopes fade on possible swap of Ft. Wetherill for Dutch Island

By Phil Zahodiakin

The prospects for trading town land at Ft. Wetherill State Park for state-owned land diminished during a May 5 Jamestown Town Council workshop on the future of the highly desirable sites.

The most immediate upshot of the meeting was a decision to proceed with an appraisal of the two properties, which cover 3.6 acres and overlook a deep-water basin.

The Dept. of Environmental Management, which has previously offered to swap some of its land for the properties, is particularly interested in Parcel B – a waterfront site occupied by the former highway barn.

The department already has a fisheries facility on an adjacent site, and would like to consolidate its aquaculture operations at the site of the 5,400-square-foot barn. DEM is also willing to trade for Parcel A – a vacant lot adjoining Parcel B.

The Jamestown Aquaculture Movement, which supports oyster restoration in Rhode Island waters, would like to join DEM at the proposed facility – although it might be a tight fit if, as council member Bill Murphy suggested, half the building was used for municipal storage.

Meanwhile, Conanicut Marine Services president Bill Munger remains interested in building a boat ramp at the basin, having offered to buy Parcel A for $1.1 million; Parcel B for $1.5 million; or Parcels A and B for $2.7 million.

However, it looks like the council wouldn’t sell any Parcel B land that’s immediately adjacent to the water.

“DEM could buy the building and we could give them a 25-year lease on the land,” said council member Bob Bowen. “But I don’t want to give up any of our riparian rights. If we sold the waterfront land, we’ll end up losing control of the basin.”

During the previous Ft. Wetherill workshop, DEM Director Mike Sullivan said he would “cooperate” with the neighborhood boat owners association, which pays the town $22,500 a year to use the 40 slips in the basin.

However, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said that Sullivan has since been “non-committal with respect to retaining the existing uses of the basin, and that is critical for our decision.”

Under state regulations, R.I. agencies are prohibited from in- vesting in structures they don’t own, so it doesn’t look like DEM would be interested in leasing the property. Sullivan, moreover, has indicated that he would prefer to acquire the property through a land swap.

In an April 1, 2009, letter to 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 has been eliminated as a turbine site because of its distance from the electrical grid – and it’s unlikely that the council would relinquish waterfront property in return for a piece of Beavertail State Park.

The only other state-owned land that’s potentially feasible for Jamestown wind turbines would be Dutch Island – and the idea of acquiring that island has gained traction among local residents, generally, and Bowen, in particular.

However, during the workshop, Bowen indicated that Sullivan recently told JAM founder Phil Larson that “Dutch Island was worth $20 million” – or many times more than the value of the Ft. Wetherill parcels. Larson, who didn’t attend the workshop, told the Press that Sullivan had, in fact, estimated the value of Dutch Island to be $20 million during his recent meeting with the director.

Bowen was asked if, in view of that estimate, Dutch Island was off the table for a land swap. He replied, “For purposes of this negotiation, yes. But we will pursue a parallel investigation into the possibility of acquiring the island – and finding out if there are legal restrictions that would prevent an acquisition.”

Bowen was referring to the federal deed of gift that transferred Dutch Island to the state of Rhode Island. It is believed that, under that deed, the state was supposed to maintain a wildlife sanctuary – although it’s suspected that the island is less a sanctuary than a haven for rats. Keiser has been tasked with looking into the terms of the deed. He has also been asked to:

• Find out if the town could sell Parcel B while legally preserving its riparian rights to the 1.65 acres of land immediately adjacent to the basin.

• Ascertain the availability of grants to restore the old highway barn, which is said to be “historic” because of its World War II-era use for mine storage.

• Initiate the appraisal process for the parcels.

Since it looks like a land swap isn’t likely, it remains to be seen if DEM – given the state’s severe budget problems – could find the money to buy the barn. It also remains to be seen if DEM would be willing to share half the building with the town – which, assuming the storage idea was adopted, would use its half to store tractor mowers and other heavy equipment.

Asked if there would be enough room for JAM, as well as DEM, in the other half of the barn, Larson said, “Initially, there would be – but sharing the building wouldn’t allow any growing space.”

Larson also said that he has two estimates for repairing the barn and converting it into an aquaculture facility. One estimate, he said, was slightly over a million dollars; the other was slightly under a million.

“The estimates are only for the structure,” Larson said, adding that the conversion would include such features as an epoxy floor. It would also include “bringing the facility up to code for schools” – which is necessary because JAM plans to teach “oyster gardening management” at the facility, in addition to running an oyster nursery.

The council members didn’t discuss the Munger offer during the workshop. However, council member Ellen Winsor proposed an idea for a property shuffle in which Munger would be asked to consider donating property he has beside the police station in exchange for riparian access to the boat ramp he would like to build.

Winsor said that, under this proposal, Jamestown could sell the Narragansett Avenue fire station property and create a “campus” consisting of the police station and a newly built firehouse and ambulance facility.

The exchange, Winsor said, would eliminate the need to spend an additional $200,000 for each custom-built fire truck, which is necessary because standard trucks don’t fit inside the Narragansett Avenue fire station. She also said that Rt. 138 would allow fire trucks to quickly reach a North End fire.

Murphy disagreed, arguing that a North End fire station would still be necessary because most of the volunteers live in Jamestown Shores, and they would still have to drive to a fire station that wasn’t located in their neighborhood.

Bowen, moreover, noted an overarching concern that was raised at the previous Ft. Wetherill workshop; namely, that some nearby residents would “vociferously object” to any commercial operations in the park.

“If there was a boat ramp going into the basin,” Bowen said, “there would be an awful lot of opposition.”

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