NORTH KINGSTOWN – While it was not an item for discussion on the agenda, the public comment portion of the North Kingstown Town Council meeting on Monday was dominated by next week’s special election. The election will include a referendum on the ballot, Question #1, asking voters to approve a $7.5 million bond for the complete renovation of the currently vacant town hall building on Boston Neck Road.
The town hall, which was built in 1888, was vacated in 2016 and has remained out of use since, with town employees being housed at the municipal offices on Fairway Drive.
On Monday night, several residents took to the podium to address the referendum and the future of town hall, with some in favor of the referendum and some against, in roughly equal measure.
Voters already approved a bond last year that included $5 million toward the restoration of the town hall building; however ,an architectural firm hired by the town, DBVW Architects, estimated that a complete renovation would cost around $12.5 million.
The council then voted to approve the $7.5 million bond referendum to take place next Tuesday, Nov. 5, allowing voters to decide whether or not the town could move forward with the $12.5 million plan.
If the $7.5 million bond referendum is approved by voters next week, the town will begin moving forward with the full-scale renovation plan.
The plan includes the demolition of two non-historic additions to the original building, which would be replaced by a larger, two-story addition. The new addition would add 16,000 square feet to the building.
A new roof and several improvements to the exterior and interior of the building would also be part of the plan, as well as expanded parking at the Veterans Memorial Park site across the street from the building, resulting in a new parking lot where the park is located.
Under the proposal, all town employees would also be able to return to the town hall building.
Some residents raised concerns on Monday about the proposal and referendum, including the fate of the Veterans Memorial Park, the town hall being located in a floodplain zone and public-versus-private funding.
Residents like Bill Thomas and Megan Healey spoke about the Veterans Memorial Park and what would happen to the site if the $7.5 million bond were to be approved.
There are currently monuments to fallen soldiers and a war memorial at the park, but, if the full-scale renovation is approved and parking is expanded at the site, the monuments could be moved to another location, such as the town hall property or Updike Park.
Thomas asked whether or not the town was legally allowed to use the site for additional parking. He read from the original resolution that brought the park and other parcels under the legal umbrella of the town, which stipulates that the site could be used for “conservation and recreation purposes by the exercise of eminent domain.”
Town solicitor Matt Callaghan explained that modifications could be made in situations involving eminent domain, though he said the town had not determined if that would be necessary in this case.
“There are provisions in all of these eminent domain or grant situations where modifications can be made to grants or benefits which are issued or awarded at certain times,” Callaghan said. “Whether that will be necessary in this case, we have not determined at this point.”
Healey, who lives near the town hall building, also voiced her concerns about several issues with the proposal, including the use of the Veterans Memorial Park site for additional parking.
“Some of my neighbors who I’ve spoken to are really concerned about the scale of this project, including taking away the green space at Veterans Memorial Park,” she said.
She also said that she disagreed with supporters of the referendum who said that the historic quality of the town would be damaged if voters didn’t approve the bond question, adding that the building would be better served if it were to be conveyed to a private entity.
Furthermore, Healey said that municipal buildings weren’t always eligible for the same grants and tax credits that private entities are.
“Wickford is known as an historic village because of the citizens and the private money that is required,” she said.
Other concerns included pedestrians having to cross from the Veterans Memorial Park site to the town hall building, which she said could be dangerous, and the building’s location in a floodplain zone.
But residents like David Kaloupek said that the town hall building was representative of the history embedded in North Kingstown.
“The town hall, built in 1888, is representative and symbolic of that historic value and culture,” Kaloupek said. “Rebuilding it and expanding it for use as a town hall makes fundamental sense.”
And David Wrenn, who also spoke in favor of the special election question, said that DBVW had successfully worked on several public buildings in the past, and that residents who were against the proposal were doing “whatever they can to convince someone that this is a bad idea.”
Wrenn added that the crossing from the park site to the town hall could be designed so that it was safe.
“We have an historic town hall that deserves to be an historic town hall with all of the municipal offices in it,” Wrenn said. “It’s time that we approve this [...] and come up with the best possible design.”
Councilor Richard Welch, who voted against the $7.5 million bond referendum, also spoke at the end of the public comment portion of the meeting.
“It’s become very apparent here tonight that there are some negative and positive views on the vote coming on Nov. 5.,” Welch said. “I will tell you that I voted against this bond issue right from the beginning.”
He said that, while he didn’t support the $12.5 million for a total restoration, the $5 million bond funds already appropriated to the town hall building would go a long way toward renovating it.
“Don’t look at $5 million as being a little bit of money and that the building is going to go to hell,” he said. “It will be fixed, but I have not supported the $12.5 million right from the beginning; $5 million will do a hell of a job over there.”
Following the meeting, Council President Greg Mancini explained why he approved of the $7.5 million bond referendum and the proposal for a complete renovation.
“I am very much in favor of it,” he said. “It’s our last chance to save the building.”
Mancini said that if the referendum were to be rejected by voters, the $5 million already approved for the building would only restore the council chambers and make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant.
“Which means we will only have municipal court and council meetings there,” he said. “The building will be vacant 335 days per year.”
He also said that, if the referendum were to be approved by voters, the monuments in Veterans Memorial Park would either be moved to the town hall property, Updike Park or stay where they currently are.
“Some people want them to remain there, some people suggested they go across the street and some people wanted them at Updike Park,” he said.
Mancini added that the parents of two of the fallen soldiers commemorated by the monuments requested that the memorials be located somewhere other than Veterans Memorial Park.
A second question will also be featured in the special election, asking voters to allow the town to lease land for up to 25 years for partnerships in renewable energy projects.
Currently the town can only enter into 10-year contracts with a private entity for renewable energy projects; however, after entering into a contract with Kearsarge Energy to lease town-owned properties for the purposes of developing solar projects, the town council voted to add the question on the special referendum ballot.
The special election will take place next Tuesday, Nov. 5. Polling stations will be located at Davisville Middle School and Beechwood Senior Center. For more information on the ballot questions, as well as the appropriate polling station for each resident, visit https://www.northkingstown.org/153/Board-of-Canvassers.