Governor Carcieri, Senators Lincoln D. Chafee and Jack Reed, and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy all spoke in favor of the Planning Commission’s report at a reception yesterday morning at the Naval War College.
"I stand ready with my colleagues to do whatever it takes to get this done," Kennedy said, as municipal leaders from Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport looked on, joined by a smattering of private developers and leaders from the nonprofit sector.
The report was commissioned by the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission largely in response to development pressures on the island and speculation surrounding the future of five abandoned Navy tank farms – a total of 350 acres – which may be released by the federal government following the Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission process.
The congressional delegation secured $600,000 in federal financing to pay for the report.
"The land area enclosed within these limits contains a rich mix of natural resources, undeveloped land vulnerable to change, utility networks needed to serve the future, and roadway and rail corridors that may hold keys to reduced traffic congestion," the report says. "The federal government controls the disposition process for unused Navy land and the privatization process for some of its facilities. The federal role in funding will be significant in the future as it has been in the past."
General Assembly leaders, while not represented yesterday, have also been behind the plan in recent months.
Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, and House Majority leader Gordon D. Fox, D-Providence, traveled to Washington in early September as part of "Rhode Island Business Leaders Day." But when the bulk of the Rhode Island contingent left, Fox, Paiva Weed and Keith Stokes, who heads the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, stayed an extra day to discuss the development plan with Rhode Island’s congressional delegation.
It was not a lobbying trip, Stokes said.
"We talked about the west side master plan and how land might be available," he said. "And if that happens, what that might mean for the community."
Of the master plan’s many recommendations, the first projects expected to come to fruition include coastal development projects in Portsmouth, proposed by private developer O’Neill Properties Group, of King of Prussia, Pa.
The company already has a state permit to construct a 1,500-slip marina – which would be the largest in New England – off Portsmouth. O’Neill owns another waterfront parcel north of Melville Marina and has plans to use an additional 50 or 60 acres of the abandoned tank farms for further development, according to the report.
The master plan envisions a "marina village and marine-oriented growth center" in Portsmouth, which could bring at least 4,500 new jobs to the area.
"The marina village is conceived as a water-edge cluster of boating and residential uses that includes the possibility of restaurants, marine-related retail or other appropriate business enterprises in the mix," reads the report, adding that the development would include a series low-rise terraces and townhouses. "The transfer of this public land to the private development entities would be accomplished in exchange for a variety of public benefits and special conditions to ensure that the overall development is well planned and meets public goals."
The plan also calls for the development of a coastal road that could ease island traffic congestion and help Rhode Island residents better enjoy Narragansett Bay. The Planning Commission hopes to open a road – and adjacent bike path – between Middletown’s Coddington Highway and Portsmouth’s Stringham Road via Burma Road.
The proposal would require Navy permission, as the route cuts through military housing. And there is a need to correct a hairpin turn on Burma Road that would clog traffic as currently constituted.
Planning Commission officials believe the new road could be in place within the next five years, with the cooperation of state transportation officials and the Navy.
Also included in the plan are:
The redevelopment of Middletown’s Anchorage housing area near the intersection of Coddington Highway and West Main Road.
The redevelopment of the north end of Newport, including the reconstruction of the Pell Bridge ramps.
The creation of Greene Lane Park in Middletown, an open area with a gazebo, benches and paths, which would be the town’s only public access point to the western shore.
The creation of a wind farm on abandoned Navy tank farm sites.
Aquidneck Island Planning Commission executive director Tina Dolen said that her group will advise each of the municipalities and government agencies throughout the implementation process. But she acknowledged that the success of the plan largely depends on the will of local officials.
"The plan brings us to the threshold, but now it is the free choice and work of residents, planning and zoning boards, institutions, businesses and city and town councils to turn the key, open the door, and create a better future," she said.