South County Hospital parking expansion plans hit roadblock

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – A proposal by South County Hospital to turn the publicly owned, 4-acre Town Farm Park into additional parking spaces recently hit a roadblock, facing scrutiny and opposition at a recent Town Council meeting, as elected officials voted to withdraw the deal and seek alternatives.

The Town Council plans to revisit the proposed land swap during its next meeting scheduled for Dec. 12. But in the meantime, the town manager was asked by the council to work with the hospital on alternative parking solutions.

The operator of the 100-bed acute care hospital, South County Health, is already pivoting toward other options, removing its “Call to Action” page from its website, which sought support from the community on the Town Farm Park land swap as part of the hospital’s five-year institutional master plan.

A motion to halt the land swap by the Town Council came after members of the community expressed concerns with the loss of public recreational facilities at Town Farm Park, located adjacent to the hospital’s 100 Kenyon Ave. campus. Some members of the community expressed outrage, claiming that the parking lot proposal would disrupt historic grounds that contain Narragansett Indian Tribe artifacts and even human remains.

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An online petition expressing these concerns at Change.org, urging the Town Council to “save it, don’t pave it,” garnered about 1,300 signatures as of early December.

The hospital company, which ran its own petition to support the proposal, has acknowledged the potential that tribal artifacts may be located on the grounds. But South County Health strongly rejected the notion that it was knowingly moving forward with plans to disrupt Native American human remains, and the company also said it was willing to use infill to build the parking lot over the park land without disturbing the earth underneath.

“The hospital has pledged repeatedly to mitigate impacts on neighbors and honor the archeological value,” South County Health Chairman Joseph Matthews wrote in a recent open letter to the community.

The Narragansett tribe continues to study the site, while the R.I. Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission has concluded that Native American graves are likely present on the property.

The hospital currently has 820 parking spaces, and the Town Farm Park proposal would have added 150 more, according to South County Health’s plans.

In exchange for the park land, now occupied by a playground and a baseball field, South County Health was planning to purchase 35 acres of land of equal value in South Kingstown to give to the town, according to the hospital company’s proposal. The Town Farm Park land that would have been included in the land swap is worth $590,000, according to an appraisal commissioned last year by the town.

The baseball field on the Town Farm Park land was constructed in 1953 and was renovated in 2001, while the sideline fencing was last replaced in 2002.

Councilwoman Deborah Bergner made the successful motion to halt the land swap, formally withdrawing the application, and directing the town manager and town staff to “find a better solution” with South County Hospital.

“We should stop it and reorganize,” Bergner said. “I really feel like there’s some good energy here to push forward with positive solutions.”

Fellow Councilwoman Jessica Rose said she understood the need for additional parking at the 150-bed hospital, given her husband’s experience with the hospital during 14 months of chemotherapy for cancer.

“I’ve seen that firsthand, the need,” Rose said. “We need to work with the hospital, to continue to work with the hospital and find feasible alternatives. We want the hospital to succeed, and we also want to honor the Native Americans who have lived here far longer than we ever have.”

If the land swap was approved by the Town Council, it would have been the second time that the hospital has acquired Town Farm Park land in a land swap with the town. The hospital acquired a separate 4 acres of former Town Farm Park land in 1983 to construct parking, in exchange for land it gave to the town on Tuckertown Road.

Marc Larocque is a PBN contributing writer.