Narragansetts renew pursuit of surplus Navy land in Newport

By: Paul Grimaldi

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Narragansett Indian tribe has renewed its attempt to take possession of surplus Navy land — including the Naval Hospital — on Aquidneck Island, according to a Newport city official.

The request, made in April through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, threatens to derail years of planning by the island communities of Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth to redevelop hundreds of acres on the island’s western shore once actively used by the Navy.

The Navy several years ago began the process of disposing of numerous land parcels on the island totaling 400 acres as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program.

“It was a little bit of a surprise,” said Jane Howington, the Newport city manager. “We were kind of at the eleventh hour when the BIA decided to put in a claim.”

Howington will discuss the issues raised by the Narragansetts’ application next week with the City Council. That discussion will happen in executive session.

According to a memo Howington sent to council members on Tuesday, the Navy has rejected the city’s efforts to redevelop the hospital property through a process known as economic development conveyance.

That decision, coupled with moves by the three communities to separate their efforts in regards to the Navy land, opened an avenue for the Narragansetts to renew their request for the land, Howington said.

According to the memo, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., “strongly urged both Middletown and Newport to be aggressive in their efforts to purchase these parcels.”

“If the City declines purchase of the Navy hospital property, there is a very strong likelihood it will be transferred to the BIA,” Howington states in her memo.

Matthew Thomas, chief sachem of the Narragansett tribe, did not return a phone call made Wednesday to the tribal office in Charlestown.

The Narragansetts and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in 2009 expressed their interest in the land. The bureau interceded with the Navy on their behalf.

The bureau sought to acquire about 260 acres of the Navy land for free through a process that gives federal agencies first crack at acquiring surplus property. But the process requires that the agencies acquire the properties at fair market value and pay for environmental cleanup.

The Navy rebuffed the Narragansetts’ efforts in 2010.

That paved the way for the Aquidneck Island Reuse Planning Authority, a group representing the three island communities, to devise a plan for the property that they would submit to the Navy for approval.

The authority, working with the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission, envisioned a variety of uses for the land, which included a fuel depot, the hospital and other Navy support facilities.

The 10-acre hospital complex, in Newport, sits along the East Passage of Narragansett Bay overlooking the Claiborne Pell Bridge. The 150,000-square-foot main building is an historic structure and cannot be demolished. Any redevelopment must include a plan to rid it of asbestos and lead paint.

Still, its location makes it a prime candidate for reuse. An analysis by a city consultant suggested a hotel, offices or some mixture of the two could generate the best return for the city, Howington said.

It’s unclear at this juncture which parcels Middletown and Portsmouth want to purchase, or which property in those towns interests the tribe.