Navy Rejects Tribe’s Land Bid

April 7, 2010

By: Tom Shevlin
newport now

NEWPORT, R.I. – The wait it over.

The Aquidneck Island Planning Commission (AIPC), point of contact for the island communities and the federal agencies, received word on Tuesday that the Department of the Navy formally has denied the February 2, 2010 request of the U.S. Department of the Interior (on behalf of the Bureau of Indian Affairs – BIA) to reopen consideration by the BIA concerning acquisition of surplus properties at Naval Station Newport.

This action paves the way for the communities of Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth to resume work with their designated representatives on the Aquidneck Island Reuse Planning Authority (AIRPA) to prepare the properties for ultimate transfer to public or private interests.

“The nearly ten years of tireless effort and collaboration, including creation of the West Side Master Plan, has today proven well worth the effort as we collectively strive to improve the economy, transportation, utility infrastructure, coastal and land-side environment, access to the sea, and recreation on Aquidneck Island,” AIPC Executive Director Tina Dolen said in a release.

The letter explaining the Navy’s decision is attached here.

The news is significant for planners who have long been working toward the goal of transforming the large swath of land on the west side of Aquidneck Island into recreational, marine, and mixed use development.

But the Navy’s decision does not preclude the Narragansetts from acquiring the property. “With the property now determined surplus to the needs of the Federal Government, it is important to note that the Narragansett Indian Tribe could seek to acquire surplus NAVSTA Newport property through a public benefit conveyance or any other appropriate federal real property conveyance authority available,” the letter states.

“If the Tribe is interested in obtaining property, we recommend the Tribe consult with the Local Redevelopment Authority as well as the appropriate Federal sponsoring agency for any public benefit conveyance being considered.”

During a brief phone interview on Tuesday, Dolen said she had real concerns over the latest tribal request.

For the last 10 years, the AIPC has worked with each of the island’s three communities on plans to develop the excess property, and prior to the tribes’ entry had been the presumed front-runner to acquire the land. But in April, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), representing Rhode Island’s Narragansett Indian Tribe and the Wampanoag Indian Tribe of Gayhead, Mass., stepped in to express their interest in the property. As a federal agency, the BIA would have the first right to any excess property.

Their late-coming to the process caused local plans to effectively be put “on hold” according to Dolen.

In August, the Bureau asked Navy officials for an extension in preparing their application in order to review an Environmental Condition of Property report, which at that time had yet to be completed. The Navy complied. It was the third such request made by the bureau in four months; a 60 day extension was also granted earlier in May and another 30 day extension was granted in July. But in December, the BIA withdrew its request, despite the Narragansetts still maintaining an interest in the property.

Citing a recently signed Executive Order, the tribe renewed their quest for the land, and Dolen was told to put her agency’s relevant work on the back burner. “We were really worried,” she said, adding that in recent months she had serious doubts about whether the AIRPA would have the opportunity to.

Among the properties being handed over include the former naval hospital in Newport, which occupies a prime waterfront parcel just north of the Pell Bridge, all of Burma Road, the former Navy Lodge property on West Main Road, and several acres in Portsmouth which abut the Melville Ponds Campgrounds.

With the land now listed on the Federal Register and the road seemingly clear to move forward, the AIPC, serving as the point of contact, is required to begin its work with already established partners at the Department of Defense, Office of Economic Adjustment to ensure that the Aquidneck Island Reuse Authority (AIRPA) (representing Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth, as well as ex-officio members, including the RI Economic Development Corporation, among others) is officially recognized, acquires grant funding, and is authorized to begin acting as the regional representative authority.

The AIRPA will then be required to complete a series of planning steps for the ensuing BRAC process, which is expected to take approximately 18 months at which point the land could change hands.

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