SOUTH KINGSTOWN — A week before the South Kingstown Town Council special election, candidates met for a forum Tuesday night to discuss the comprehensive plan, economic development and other issues facing the town.
There are four candidates in Tuesday’s election: Democrat Bryant Da Cruz and independents Jim O’Neill, Liz Gledhill and Joël Dargan. The election will fill the council seat vacated by Carol Hagan McEntee, who was elected to House District 33 in a June special election after the resignation of Donald Lally.
Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield presented the forum, which was moderated by Artistic Director Christopher Simpson, and attended by about 30 people. Each candidate had 15 minutes to answer questions, submitted by community members in advance.
Simpson said several people submitted questions regarding the town’s comprehensive community plan, and asked what candidates would do about long-range planning in South Kingstown.
Da Cruz said he has not read the comprehensive plan, but his vision for the town includes more economic development.
“We need to find a good balance [of economic and social diversity] so we can have stores on Main Street and things for our community to enjoy. I want to make sure South Kingstown continues to be a great place to raise families,” he said.
Dargan, a political newcomer, also said he has not read the comprehensive plan, but would do so in the future.
“My wife and I want our children to have a better future,” he said. “One of the key ways to do that is to make sure we are supporting our small businesses and that they continue to grow. If we promote our small businesses, and we grow our local economy, that’s going to generate revenue for our schools, for our roads, for our facilities.”
O’Neill, who served as Town Councilor for 14 years before losing his seat in November’s election, said he helped develop aspects of the comprehensive plan. He talked about the need for local governance – part of his platform – and said he supports the town’s right to maintain control over local issues, something he feels state government is taking over.
“I wish we had the opportunity for long-term governance; that’s why we have the comprehensive plan,” he added. “Unfortunately, finances have put us in a tight spot. We have to simply balance the citizens’ needs, the taxpayers’ needs, with lean budgets across-the-board.”
“I like a lot of the things that are in [the comprehensive plan],” Gledhill said. “But reading it, and some of the goals that have been set, it’s just words on a sheet of paper. They don’t mean anything unless we’re doing something to actually get there. I’d like to see a lot of things happen in South Kingstown for the long term.”
Gledhill said she supports long-term planning for small businesses and community organizations.
Candidates were asked if they support the proposed community recreation center on Broad Rock Road. The town plans to build a 28,000-square-foot facility on the former St. Dominic Savio property in Peace Dale. The project would cost $6.15 million and be paid for by three bonds approved by South Kingstown voters, user fees and funds from the town reserves.
“I am against the rec center,” Dargan said. “I don’t think it’s money well spent. I think there’s other areas we could use the money more appropriately. I think it’s going to hurt small businesses, such as Riverbend [Athletic Club in Peace Dale]. We have the YMCA that recently had a lot of upgrades to it. There are a lot of small business owners that run CrossFits [fitness clubs] or different versions of CrossFit.”
Dargan was alone in this opinion.
“The rec center passed three tests [when voters approved the bonds],” O’Neill said. “It’s expensive, but I think our bond debt has substantially reduced to allow us to fund this. I have supported our Recreation Department on this. There are lots of people in town who are looking forward to this.”
“As a parent, I supported the rec center, and I still do,” Gledhill said. “We need students to come back, we need families to come back to South Kingstown. I think the rec center is part of a larger decision to bring people here, to say, ‘Look what we have. Look how we take care of our children. Look how we take care of our Parks and Rec.”
“I supported the rec center right from the very beginning,” Da Cruz said. “I feel it will increase property values in town, will add to a sense of community and give people the ability to exercise during the winter months. One of the key things I want to make sure happens, is I want it to be a place everyone can use.”
Candidates also weighed in on the Alzheimer’s assisted living facility proposed for the former Larchwood Inn site on Main Street; the Planning Board voted to deny its master plan approval last week. Developer Roland Fiore owns the property and it is under contract to Post Acute Partners, operators of Scallop Shell Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, the company that proposed the assisted living facility. Post Acute Partners can appeal the decision within 20 days of the filing of the denial.
O’Neill, who has spoken against the project at several Planning Board meetings, said he was “proud” to support the opponents of the Larchwood proposal.
“It’s the wrong place for something this size,” he said. “I’ve always been behind neighborhoods, and this would change the neighborhood drastically.”
The other candidates voiced different opinions.
“[The existing Larchwood Inn] is abandoned, it’s not maintained, it’s a safety hazard. It’s no longer a fiscally responsible choice or investment to make, to update it,” Gledhill said. “Like Mr. O’Neill, I love neighborhoods, but I think, just as dangerous as a large, over-sized Alzheimer’s facility, is a building that is falling down.”
Gledhill supported reducing the size of the proposed building.
“That [existing] building, unfortunately can’t be saved,” Da Cruz said. He said he would like to see other proposals for that site, be it the Alzheimer’s facility with modifications, or other plans.
Dargan said he supports the assisted living proposal, adding there should be “oversight” regarding the size of the project.
Other topics discussed during the forum included diversity in the town, the proposed Matunuck sea wall and erosion issues on Matunuck Beach Road and preserving open space. A video of the forum is below: