2010-10-28 / Front Page

Councilors tilt against Fort Wetherill sale

By Phil Zahodiakin

Although a decision on the future of town properties at Fort Wetherill is still far off, there aren’t any Jamestown councilors who currently support selling the waterfront land, a discussion on the prime real estate indicated during an Oct. 25 workshop held by the Town Council.

Although the driver for the workshop was a recent appraisal of the properties, the particulars of the extensive assessment weren’t debated in any detail. Rather, the councilors discussed the options on the table, including a long-standing offer from the Department of Environmental Management, which already has a nearby research facility, to purchase one or both of the town lots.

Most of the options have been discussed in previous Fort Wetherill workshops, however, Councilwoman Ellen Winsor proposed an exploratory idea for an additional research facility, and Councilman Bob Bowen suggested selling one of the town parcels and buying a property he touted as much more desirable.

The principle consensus that emerged from the workshop was opposition to the sale of the waterfront land, which includes the old highway barn. Councilman Bill Murphy, moreover, argued that the town should not relin- quish either the 84,468 squarefoot waterfront property (also known as Parcel B), or the 80,000 square feet of vacant land to the west (Parcel A).

“I don’t want to sell the properties, period,” Murphy said, pointing to the results of the recent, community survey. “Everywhere I look I see 85 percent, 90 percent, 97 percent of the people in Jamestown saying they want to preserve and protect our habitat, our scenic views of the bay, and our public areas. That tells me we shouldn’t sell this land.”

Councilman Mike White said he “wasn’t a big fan of selling our waterfront property,” and Council president Mike Schnack said, “As far as selling town property, I’m not in favor of it. We don’t need to sell it. We don’t have any urgent need for money. And, once we sell it, we can never get it back. Regardless of what the appraisal says, I think there’s more value in keeping the land than selling it.”

The appraisal estimates the value of vacant Parcel A as $1.1 million, and the value of waterfront Parcel B as either $590,000 or $1.14 million – with the higher, Parcel B number reflecting its market value and the lower number reflecting its lease value over the duration of a long-term lease.

The lease value is based upon the income from a boat-slip lease with the Fort Wetherill Boat Owners Association in addition to the appraised lease-value of the highway barn, as is, at $20,000 a year. The lease for 42 slips, which expires in 2015, currently brings the town $25,000 a year – which, Winsor said, was insufficient for such a unique and desirable site with an appraised, maximum value of $2.24 million.

Although she doesn’t support selling the properties, Winsor said that she would like all of the Fort Wetherill real estate – the barn, the land, and the waterfront areas – to yield a level of income that reflects the desirability of the site while, at the same time, preserving resident access to the waterfront.

To that end, Winsor suggested hiring a consultant to produce a conceptual picture of the various options on the table after a discussion with the University of Rhode Island School of Oceanography about a potential waveenergy research facility on the cove just west of the DEM research facility.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser advised the councilors that DEM interest in the highway barn remains strong. Another party with a strong interest in the barn is the Jamestown Aquaculture Movement, which has hopes of sharing the space with DEM and cultivating oyster larvae for an oyster restoration initiative in Narragansett Bay.

Bowen asked if it would be possible to sell the highway barn, alone, while retaining title to all of the land around it. Informed that this was possible, Bowen said that he would not oppose the sale of the highway barn as long as the town kept the land.

He also offered a proposal to sell Parcel A and use the proceeds to purchase a 6,651-square-foot parcel of waterfront land on Walcott Avenue. Bowen said that that the Walcott Avenue property, unlike Parcel A, provides a “spectacular view” of Narragansett Bay. He also said that the property, which was deemed unsuitable for a residence by both the town and the Coastal Resources Management Council, offers “an opportunity to construct a public park and a fishing pier that would serve the town for generations.”

Murphy, however, said he didn’t regard Parcel A as “a lowvalue property,” pointing out “the path up there is very well worn.”

The councilors, who didn’t discuss a standing Conanicut Marine Services offer to purchase one or both of the properties, agreed to re-visit the Fort Wetherill issue early in 2011. In the meantime, at the direction of the councilors, Keiser will start searching for grant money to fix up the highway barn, which was originally built as a Naval minestorage facility. Currently, the town is storing highway equipment in the barn. Although its roof is sound, all of the windows are broken.

In public comments, Frank Meyer noted that an architectural firm hired by the town had previously proposed an amphitheater for Parcel A, and argued that this proposal should be pursued “regardless of the abutters who killed the proposal the first time around.” Harbormaster Sam Paterson reminded the councilors that the town had acquired the properties from the National Park Service for very little money, suggesting that they are an asset that shouldn’t be sold. Others in the audience echoed this view.

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