2016-07-07 / Front Page

Land May Be Resold to Town

Concerns Raised About Contamination
By Olga Enger

Middletown is eyeing a 71-acre parcel of land, a portion of which fronts West Main Road, designated as Lot 55, Tax Assessor's Plat 106, which was sold less than a year ago. Middletown is eyeing a 71-acre parcel of land, a portion of which fronts West Main Road, designated as Lot 55, Tax Assessor's Plat 106, which was sold less than a year ago. Less than a year after local investors agreed to purchase 71 acres of farmland on West Main Road, the Town of Middletown is considering acquiring the site.

The Vanicek family used the land, known as the Old Farm, agriculturally since the 1800s, until they sold the parcel for $5.35 million to brothers Peter and Harry Kyriakides. The Vaniceks still do business as Rhode Island Nurseries in Middletown. The Kyriakides, who own numerous local hotels and restaurants, closed on the Old Farm deal on Jan. 15, two weeks after they sold their beachfront Atlantic Beach Club to Longwood Venues for $12 million.

The potential Old Farm resale has been discussed during closed-door meetings and officials have been tight-lipped about the details.

“This council has charged our town solicitor and town administrator with exploring this potential possibility,” Town Council President Robert Sylvia told Newport This Week.

Councilor Henry Lombardi clarified the council “cannot discuss any issues that were discussed in executive session.”

However, sources say the land could be slated for youth sports fields.

If a deal is reached to purchase the land, Sylvia vowed it would be vetted in the public arena.

“If any potential agreement is proposed, this council will honor its commitment to full transparency, and we would solicit public input,” said Sylvia.

After the Kyriakides agreed to purchase the property last fall, they submitted plans to develop a large shopping center on the site, but the council quickly passed a moratorium on big box development. However, a Newport Superior Court judge ruled the location is exempt because the plans were submitted before the temporary hold was in place. In 2012, the Vanicek family similarly applied for a special use permit to build a large shopping center, which was denied by the Zoning Board of Review.

Middletown Resident Carol Cummings broached the topic publicly at the June 20 council meeting. After that public meeting, councilors retreated to a closed-door session listed on the agenda as “land acquisition (West Main Road).”

“I saw it on the agenda and I had to say something. My facts come from law books and research,” said Cummings during a lengthy interview with Newport This Week. Cummings claims the current deal on the table is a purchase price of $6.35 million and the Kyriakides would keep 15 acres to erect a small shopping area and condominiums.

She warned of possible contamination, which is common on land that has been used for agricultural purposes.

“My bottom line answer is this property should be 100 percent avoided unless it is tested properly under a certified, respected environmental agency. Then, based on what the DEM has to say, we can talk,” said Cummings.

Although the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) identifies health risks of agricultural land, it only requires remediation if the site has been tested and levels are found to be above their thresholds.

“We are reactive, not proactive, unfortunately,” DEM Engineer Gary Jablonski told Newport This Week. He clarified that if Middletown purchased the land to convert to recreational fields, the agency would not automatically require testing, despite the known risks of regular pesticide application.

The four contaminants of concern of agricultural land are arsenic, lead, chlordane and dieldrin, according to a 2014 DEM policy memo. Exposure to the contaminants, which do not break down in the soil, have been linked to an array of health concerns including cancer, developmental delays in children, and other disorders.

Contaminated land often falls under the DEM radar once an investor applies for financing, as banks require soil testing, Jablonski explained. However, the Kyriakides signed a $3 million private mortgage with the Vanicek family, according to town records.

The DEM recognizes that despite the public safety hazards of contaminated soil, remediation efforts can be complicated and costly.

“The biggest barrier in bringing these sites into compliance with the remediation regulations is the typically large size of the sites, and subsequently, the cost associated with investigating, characterizing and remediating such large sites,” reads the DEM policy document.

This would not be the first time Middletown has purchased a large parcel of land and left it undeveloped. In 2004, Middletown purchased Kempenaar Valley, a 45-acre agricultural site, for $3 million, with a conservation easement granted to DEM, the City of Newport, and the Aquidneck Island Land Trust (ALT) to retain the site as open space. The land was considered a priority parcel within the Bailey Brook watershed, which in 2003 the DEM determined had higher-than-acceptable levels of contaminates. The Kempenaar Valley entered into the DEM remediation program, which had an overall price tag of $5 million to clean up the brook and surrounding land.

Whether or not the ALT is included in the Old Farm discussions is unknown.

“I can’t comment on properties we may be looking at short term due to confidentiality concerns,” said ALT executive director Chuck Allot. “I can say that a parcel of prime farmland of this size is always something ALT is looking at in the long term.”

Cummings said in addition to the health risks to children, she is suspicious of the lack of transparency.

“I don’t like the political Boogie Woogie. That’s what it is,” she said.

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