SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Council members decided Monday that they want more information before signing off on a proposed land swap where South County Health would give the town a 35-acre parcel off Glen Rock Road in return for Town Farm Park, adjacent to the hospital.
The decision to delay a vote came after an hours-long public hearing where about 25 people spoke, including South County Health President and CEO Aaron Robinson.
The swap would allow South County Health to expand its on-site parking at the hospital, which supporters have said is woefully inadequate at current levels.
“This is the first step in a painfully long process that will eventually lead us to, hopefully, some additional parking that we desperately need right now,” Robinson said.
Part of the land would remain as a play area or other public space, and the conceptual plan presented Monday also includes a perimeter walking path with observation stands to view upper Point Judith Pond.
Specifically, the councilors want to see a map of proposed changes that would be made to the Town Farm Park, including lines that mark any potential land that would remain under town control, supervision or ownership.
Councilors Rory McEntee, Joe Viele and President Abel Collins signaled they are in favor of submitting the proposal to DEM.
McEntee said he remembers playing at the Town Farm ballpark as a boy.
“This is a balancing act, and we must consider the needs of the hospital and all they do for the community – high-paying jobs, livable wages and quality health care,” he said.
Council members Bryant DaCruz and Deborah Kelso said they need more information before they could support it.
DaCruz said he supports the hospital and has at times had to drive around looking for a free parking space.
“I don’t think if we were to move this decision to two weeks from now it would significantly impact the application process, but it would give us more time to get additional information,” he said.
Kelso said she’s inclined to move the petition forward to the DEM, but that the hospital’s proposal doesn’t meet her requirements.
“My requirements are that the town retain some of this property,” she said. “I’m in full support of the hospital and their ability to thrive, and parking is a big part of that.”
Collins remembers playing ball at both upper and lower fields at the Town Farm Park and was born at the hospital.
“I love the hospital and what it brings to this community,” he said. He said the plan could present an expansion of recreation opportunities in town.
“As a bird-watcher, I’d love to have access to that cove there, see down into it,” he said, referring to the cove adjacent to the hospital property. “If we could connect that to Marina Park by going under the overpass, that would be excellent. I think there’s a lot to be said for the plan that is presented, and not only that, there’s still a playground. We’re not losing a playground, it’s still there for the community to access.”
The baseball field at the park has seen a decline in use as other fields have opened in town, he noted.
Ceding land at Town Farm Park has also resulted in the town gaining all the land at Tuckertown Park, and potentially another 35 acres in a part of town without much access to recreational facilities.
“It’s a beautiful piece of land,” Collins said. “I understand Save The Bay’s point of wanting to keep it pristine, but if it’s on the open market, one of the ways we can best do that is to have the town own it.”
In December, the Recreation Commission voted to recommend that the council authorize a request to the state Department of Environmental Management for the swap of approximately 35-acres located at 494 Glen Rock Road for eight acres at Town Farm Park.
The motion passed with the caveat that the items discussed about retaining a park at Town Farm along with additional financial support from the hospital for park improvements at Town Farm and Glen Rock properties be incorporated into any agreement.
The council kept the hearing and public comments open until its Jan. 27 meeting, and asked town staff and the Recreation Commission to review the concept of having the town retain ownership of part of the park – perhaps an acre or two — to provide play and walking areas.
Ultimately, federal and state approvals are needed yet for any swap, including from the National Park Service, because of funding restrictions the town accepted with a 1976 grant. It also required that the town keep the land for recreational use in perpetuity.