South Kingstown Council Pulls Plug on Controversial Town Farm Park Land Swap
December 13, 2022
WAKEFIELD, R.I. — In a unanimous vote, members of the South Kingstown Town Council passed a resolution at Monday night’s council meeting authorizing the withdrawal of the town‘s support for a land swap with South County Health.
Town Farm Park had been proposed as the site of expanded parking for the hospital, but opposition to the plan grew after the community learned an archaeological study had determined there were Indigenous artifacts on the site, indicating the possibility that human graves might also be present.
Residents who opposed the plan formed the Friends of Town Farm Park group and started a petition, and members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe were furious that a proposal to pave over land that might contain the graves of their ancestors was even being considered.
Opponents of the land swap urged the hospital to consider parking alternatives to the park and warned that paving the site, which is close to the head of Point Judith Pond, would exacerbate the pond’s pollution problem.
In order to proceed with a land swap, the town first had to apply to the National Park Service. Under the terms of a federal grant that had made it possible for the town to acquire the park, the land would be maintained as open space in perpetuity; however, the town did have the option of applying for the authorization of a land swap. In this case, in return for Town Farm Park, the town would receive a 35-acre property on Glenn Rock Road.
At the Nov. 28 Town Council meeting, council members expressed their distaste for exploring a proposal that had the possibility of disturbing Indigenous artifacts and possibly graves, and asked town manager James Manni to work with the hospital to try to find an alternative site that would alleviate the hospital’s parking problem.
Manni reported to the council during the Dec. 12 meeting that he, town solicitor Michael Ursillo, and director of administrative services Luke Murray had met with hospital administrators to discuss the possible use of a property next to the park, where the town’s public services building is located.
“The first question was asked by me to the president, ‘Are you interested in this property?’ The answer was ‘yes,’” Manni said. “We came up with some parameters … once again, this is in its infancy. The council would have to approve any steps along the way. The hospital is interested in the property.”
Manni noted that he had asked Ursillo to determine whether there were any restrictions on the alternate property’s sale or transfer to South County Health.
“The solicitor, his office, is looking into that to see if there are any restrictions, when this property was built, or any funds that we received, anything that would be in the title, the deed, whatever, that would prohibit this,” he said. “We have not gotten an answer yet.”
There is a question of where the dozen town employees who work in the building would be moved. The town also wants to keep an ambulance at the site because of its proximity to Route 1.
“In a very brief conversation with the president of the hospital, we agreed that there would have to be some type of permanent structure made on that property, if this ever got transferred or sold, that in perpetuity, the EMS would be there to respond to anywhere in this town and it would be at the cost to the hospital to build a modest facility to one rescue and two personnel,” Manni said.
During the public comment period, Narragansett tribal leader Randy Noka thanked the council for voting to withdraw its support for the land swap application, but he expressed his disgust that the swap and the paving of the park had even been considered.
“My disappointment [is] not so much with the medical folks at South County Hospital, South County Health, [but with] the administrators, whoever is responsible for bringing up this proposal before this council,” he said. “It disgusts me, and it’s truly disturbing to know that that was potentially a remedy to get more parking spots. We’ll just pave over it. … it’s just the Narragansetts. Not a big deal. I appreciate what this council brought up. It’s not with them, my problem is. It’s with the hospital folks, the administrators more so.”
Andrew Prescott, general counsel for South County Health, said during the comment period that he objected to what he described as the “demonizing” of the hospital administration. Prescott also noted that the presence of graves on the property has yet to be confirmed.
“We as an institution have pivoted to working with you and the town manager to look for alternatives to the land swap now that that’s been put behind us, and believe me, we have no interest in continuing to pursue something that’s a dead end,” he said. “I do have to stand up, though, after listening to all this and being at the last meeting, to ask that the demonizing of the hospital administration stop and that the misstatements about the record with regard to this issue stop now. This was not a situation where the hospital and the town and a prior counsel planned for years to pave over a known Indian burial ground, and that’s the way that many of the speakers are raising to characterize the hospital and members of the Town Council and the town administration, and it is absolutely not true.”
Friends of Town Park founder Lynne Harper said she was relieved that the land swap would not be taking place, but she was hoping something could be done to protect the park forever.
“We are happy to see that the Town Council followed through on their pledge and voted to withdraw the land swap application for Town Farm Park,” she said in an emailed statement. “A member of our group thanked the council for ‘their recognition of our town’s collective moral obligation to do the right thing here.’ We are also encouraged by the Town Manger’s report that the town and hospital have met and have started discussing alternative sites, of which the first is the public safety building on the neighboring property. We are curious to see where that goes and are hopeful that it will work out for the hospital. That said, we still have concerns that even though the protection under the Land and Water Conservation Fund is still intact, we are hoping that something can be done to reinforce it to ensure that the land will remain unusable for consideration of development again.”