SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Susan Cohen of 74 Hillcrest Road has been a South County Health supporter for nearly a half century. She’s not happy, though, as growth to serve more patients means replacing a neighborhood park with a parking lot.
However, Ian Clark, who works at the hospital and lives on Allen Avenue, is very satisfied. He understands that change brings disruptions in these locales, but it brings benefits like jobs, state-of-the-art health care and a thriving town attractive to others.
Their sentiments found in letters to town officials echo other residents who also have sent comments for a Monday public hearing about a land swap in which the hospital gets nearby Town Farm Park, a small ballfield and open-space grassy area. The hearing will be at 7:30 p.m. in the Town Hall Council Chambers at 180 High St.
The park was created in the 1950s when Wakefield was smaller and the medical center just a much smaller country hospital without the services that draw many people there today. With more patients and more staff connected to advanced services offered, they also come with vehicles.
The park has already been reduced over time from eight acres to three for hospital parking. It raises the conflicting questions about negotiating what’s best for the community.
“What a shame it would be to lose this area to asphalt and automobiles,” wrote Mike Tanner of 56 Dobson Road, to town officials. “I understand the hospital’s need for additional parking, but wish there was another option.”
The park would be swapped for 35 acres on Glen Rock Road in West Kingston near the Exeter and Richmond border, but that is not calming opponents.
Construction of Route 1 in 1962 divided what was called the town farm parcel, with the town of South Kingstown retaining ownership of land where it built a new police station two years later, as well as two ballfields north of the highway and Marina Park south of it, writer Betty Cotter chronicled in a recent history of the hospital.
The fields became known as Town Farm Park. Its original baseball diamonds are now down to one, but the grounds still invite families and others to stroll and see scenic view of upper Point Judith Pond across the now busy two-lane Route 1 linking the southern part of the state with the north.
As the hospital expands to offer more services in both a growing region and within its own system, more patients are visiting the Kenyon Avenue medical center that adjoins the park. Services there are more convenient than driving to Providence, Warwick or Cranston for the same care, said a variety of South County patients recently.
“I can’t believe it,” said one nearby Woodruff Avenue resident last week. “I had to drive around the parking lot for 20 minutes just to have a five-minute blood test. They definitely need to do something.”
Federal and state approvals are needed yet for any swap, including the OK 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.
While residents say they want to help the hospital — also a major employer in the town — they also want to keep some part of the land as a park, said David Palazzetti, chairman of the town’s Recreation Commission, which oversees the park.
He said the commission has not taken a formal position on the land swap, but in any consideration commission members want a small portion of the park retained for the purpose of a neighborhood park.
“From my perspective, a neighborhood park is needed in the Town Farm Park location to provide the residents in that portion of town with quality open space within walking distance of their homes,” he said.
“In fact, I believe that just the portion of the property that is currently configured as a baseball and softball field could be adequately reconfigured as an excellent neighborhood park with exercise equipment, a picnic area, and maybe a small grass field for general recreation usage,” he said.
Aaron Robinson, president and chief executive officer of South County Health, which operates the hospital, said that keeping some portion of a park is under consideration.
“We currently have a number of options on the table and are hopeful for a solution that is mutually beneficial to both the community and South County Health,” he said, but was not specific about the details.
“For years, we have offered valet parking and have shuttled employees into work from off-site locations,” he said about the reasons for needing the park land. “A longer term solution is critical so we can build upon the outstanding and award-winning care we provide as Rhode Island’s only independent health system.”
Officials in the town said that while the West Kinston site lacks playgrounds or ballfields, it offers much more passive recreational activities that are sought after by the town’s growing older population.
Palazzetti said, however, that it’s not of equal recreational value in a swap.
The West Kingston property “would require significant infrastructure investment to utilize it for community recreation. I would rather see a smaller parcel be proposed that could serve as a new neighborhood park in an already developed section of town where no walkable parks exist,” he said.
He also offered that keeping a walking area and a baseball field portion along nearby Dobson Road provides benefits to the hospital as well as residents, including buffer for homes, a small neighborhood park and continued scenic views to the nearby harbor.
For Cohen on Hillcrest Road that addresses some of her concerns as she noted in a letter to town officials.
“Now we may lose the Little League field, the children’s play set and swings, and — perhaps most importantly, the only public land I know of in SK where we can see Salt Pond. For another parking lot. This is unacceptable,” she said.
Yet others, like Ian Clark, see now an eventual outcome for a hospital that needs to grow and advance in both care and business development to continue to serve South County.
“In short, the land swap proposal represents the most realistic and least impactful solution to address current and anticipated parking demands,” he said.
“I know our community has overwhelmingly expressed its support of South County Health in the past...It’s my sincere hope that the Town Council will support South County Health on the land swap proposal, too,” he said.