With the action of Federal District Court Judge Ronald Lagueux yesterday, the state came a giant step closer to opening all 123 acres of the former Rocky Point Amusement Park to the public. Lagueux cleared the way for the Small Business Administration (SBA), court appointed receiver for bankrupt Moneta Capital, to sell about 82 acres to the state for $9.65 million. The city already owns 41 acres of the Rocky Point shoreline that will be rejoined with the state parcel.
A closing on the property is expected next month.
The moment so many had waited for so long was brief – about 10 minutes – without drama, but filled with emotion.
Judge Lagueux set the mood, recounting how, as a legislative counsel to the late Governor John Chafee, he had worked on the acquisition of Colt Farm that later became Colt State Park. The act of condemnation was for $880,000.
Minutes later, after Thomas Carlotto, attorney representing the SBA, outlined how the agency had followed bidding requirements and there were no competing bidders, Lagueux said that the sales price fit the guidelines and was within the $7.6 million value established by an average of three appraisals.
“I’m very happy to confirm the sale of another great property,” Lagueux said. He said he was proud to have had a role in the Rocky Point property and Colt Park.
“I suppose there was a time when a higher and best use would have been condominiums,” Lagueux said.
“This is the best use for the public,” he concluded.
Quietly, DEM Director Janet Coit applauded and then flashed a beaming smile to Mayor Scott Avedisian who sat at the opposite end of the bench.
In a statement later released by her office, Coit said, “The creation of a coastal park at Rocky Point that will benefit Rhode Islanders for centuries is now just a small step away.”
Avedisian said city acquisition of 41 acres was a dream come true, and that he never thought all of the park could be saved. He also marveled at the connections between John Chafee, who he worked for, working to acquiring Colt Farm, and now how his son, Lincoln Chafee, is governor as the state moves to acquire Rocky Point. He said both Chafees share “the bedrock values of environment, conservation and the infrastructure.”
SBA District Director Mark Hayward, who has been a part of the process since the amusement park closed, agreed that public use of the land is the highest and best use, adding that it is also best for the creditors.
“It’s been a long road with lots of interesting turns and twists,” he said.
Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur, who attended the hearing, called it a “great day for Ward 5, the city and the state.”
Public ownership of the former amusement park has been long talked about and, for a long time, thought as nothing more than a pipe dream.
When the park closed in 1995, developer interest was intense. The site, with its hilly terrain and vistas from one end of Narragansett Bay to the other, was considered prime property for condominiums and apartments. Rocky Point was touted as the largest developable waterfront property in New England and rapidly caught the notice of one of the country’s largest luxury homebuilders, Toll Brothers.
The company was behind a $25 million bid for the park. It drew up plans for 399 housing units in a combination of townhouses and condominium towers. The company started the process of gaining city approvals and, in fact, held a public meeting where, to the amazement of some, a number of Warwick Neck residents welcomed the prospect of downsizing and buying on Rocky Point. But that’s as far as it went. The housing market was softening and Toll Brothers walked away from the deal.
While there were stories of celebrities and foreign investors ready to snatch up the site, two Rhode Island developers – Universal Properties and Leach Family Holdings – each had turns on the land. Their plans fell victim to the economy and both backed out of agreements they had with the SBA.
But public interest in the park couldn’t be snuffed out. When the state faced the prospect of losing a $2.2 million National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant to be used for property acquisition, Avedisian and the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) saw an opportunity of satisfying one of the park’s larger creditors while gaining some of the land. A deal was put together for 41 acres of coastline for $4.4 million. The action was the impetus for the creation of the Rocky Point Foundation, a non-profit with the goal of preserving the entire park.
The foundation quickly gained momentum. It was successful in lobbying for a $14.7 million referendum that appeared on the 2010 ballot, of which $10 million was earmarked for the acquisition of Rocky Point. The question gained voter approval, but then nothing happened.
With a legislative grant, the foundation helped underwrite the cost of an appraisal that became the basis of the state’s offer to buy the land. In September, the state and the SBA announced they had reached an agreement. Enabling that to happen, the City Council abated about $2 million in unpaid park taxes on condition that the state was the buyer.
Still, the park could have ended up privately owned.
While no alternative bidders for the property stepped forward prior to yesterday’s court hearing, they could have made that appeal directly to the judge. None did.
Foundation member George Shuster, who attended the court hearing, called yesterday’s action “the most important step so far in the decades-long process to bring back the park.”
“Whatever the future holds for Rocky Point,” he added, “all Rhode Islanders and not a lucky group of residents living in luxury townhouses will benefit.”
Looking ahead, the state is faced with cleaning up the property. The two major remaining park buildings, the Shore Dinner Hall and the Palladium and Windjammer, are in various states of deterioration. Of the two, with its windows blown in and roof caved in, it appears nothing could be done to save the Shore Dinner Hall. Also on the Rocky Beach portion of the property there remain scores of cottages, remnants of a community where people built on leased land and would return summer after summer. The city has offered to assist in demolishing the houses.
Hayward said security would remain in place until the property is transferred to the state; an action he said can’t be taken until expiration of a 30-day appeal period.
The Rocky Point Foundation aims to play a role in addressing how the park should be developed through a series of public meetings starting after the sale is completed.
In a release, Coit said that once the state secures the land, it would be DEM’s responsibility to develop a work plan and secure funding to clean up the property so that it can be made available for public recreation. DEM has contracted to get an environmental assessment of the site, and expects to use a combination of state and federal resources – in close collaboration with the city of Warwick – to clean up the site. Governor Chafee has included $2.5 million for cleanup of the Rocky Point property in his 2014 budget proposal.
The governor and members of the Congressional delegation, who have all played roles in securing the park, offered their reactions to the court’s action.
“Rocky Point, one of Rhode Island’s most beloved natural assets, holds many special memories of the past. I look forward to it becoming available for all Rhode Islanders to enjoy,” Chafee said in a statement.
Senator Jack Reed called the action “another important step toward a truly landmark acquisition.”
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said, “Today's decision ensures that the park's natural beauty and pristine shoreline will be enjoyed by generations to come.”
And Congressman James Langevin said, “Growing up in Warwick, I spent many happy days at Rocky Point, which remains an historic venue and a very special place for me.”