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Council will authorize town to submit conversion application

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Members of the public will be able to weigh in on the land swap discussion next month when the issue comes before the recreation commission and the town council. 

“The procedure we’re using here will be sort of bifurcated,” according to Town Manager Robert Zarnetske. Although none of the dates have been firmly set in stone, the anticipation is that “there will be a public meeting on the 4th before the recreation commission, and then the public hearing on the 9th dealing with the application for conversion.”

Zarnetske stressed at Monday night’s town council that these meetings will not answer “the question of shall we do the swap, but rather shall we submit an application.”

If the application is approved by the federal government, it will allow the town to make the swap, but there will be another separate public hearing before any action is taken, he explained. 

Discussion of the possible land swap began six months ago when South County Health was looking into new possibilities for additional parking – an ongoing issue for those coming and going from the hospital. The hope had been to expand their footprint into the park space immediately adjacent to the hospital, but in an effort to try and lease that land out, town officials discovered that in 1976, South Kingstown took a grant from the National Park Service for $3,500 to keep that land open.

The solution wasn’t as simple as giving back the $3,500, Zarnetske explained to the council back in May. If the town broke the terms of the grant, South Kingstown would never be eligible for another grant from the National Parks Service in the future. The option of applying for a land swap, agreeing to keep a similar parcel of land open and free of development, was possible though. 

Next month, Zarnetske will be able to describe the attributes of the property in great detail, but the monetary value will not be disclosed to the public. What he has been able to say so far is that the land swap that South County Health hopes to make with the town will be a sizable increase, and if everything works out as hoped, the town will be accepting a larger and more valuable piece of real estate. 

Part of the reason for the “bifurcated process” is that the proposed property for exchange “isn’t owned by the hospital at this point,” he explained. 

Currently, the hospital is in the process of getting an agreement of purchase, but they will not own the property.

“We’re sort of in a situation where we’ve got to figure out how to proceed with the application, without being able to fully disclose the value of the property that will be exchanged,” he said.

If the application for conversion receives an affirmative answer, the issue of whether or not the swap should happen would then come back to the community for a second round. The first round, however, he stressed again, can only answer the first question of whether an application should be submitted.

“We cannot answer the second question of should we do a swap,” Zarnetske said. 

In other business that evening, Zarnetske also updated council members about the severe erosion conditions at South Kingstown Town Beach. Last month, a severe storm eroded half of the beach away, exposing piling and cement footers from the old pier. 

“It will have to be monitored through the winter and then we’ll have to do some sort of beach replenishment in the spring,” he said. “It was quite a significant storm.”

He also informed the council about the selection process for a new planning director, which has now been narrowed down to three finalists. The applicant pool was impressive, he said, and many of them had “phenomenal experience.”

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