NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — The sign outside the shuttered hotel calls it the Lighthouse Inn, but the locals know it by an even older name: The Dutch Inn. Families from Narragansett would buy day passes for parties at the pool, where they might be greeted by a fake windmill or a parrot the local fishermen had taught swear words.
Now the windmill is gone, the building is fenced off and the only families around are the broods of gulls, who nest on the roof and streak neighbors with guano.
The 5-acre parcel in the Port of Galilee, in the heart of the local commercial fishing industry, is now used mostly for Block Island ferry parking. It has surely seen better days. Among the barriers to doing anything about it — in addition to sea level rise and the needs of the commercial fishing industry — is that the owner of the building can’t stop saying that the area smells bad.
“It stinks of fish, it’s loaded with seagulls, and it’s loaded with truck traffic,” Michael Voccola, an attorney for the owner, said in a Zoom meeting with the Narragansett Town Council in June. “To pretend that doesn’t exist is not going to work.”
One member of the Town Council took exception to that description. But the alleged stench wafting from the working seaport across Great Island Road is just the most obvious of the complications for the old Dutch Inn. There’s also the tangled net of who actually owns the building and who will make the decisions about its future.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management owns the land, which it acquired along with a lot of other property there through a process similar to eminent domain. The effort to create a fishing port was resoundingly successful, and Galilee, which is within the town of Narragansett, now has the third-most landings on the East Coast. It supports thousands of jobs ranging from net-making to engine repair and fish processing.
The Dutch Inn was originally built to support a tuna fishing competition that is no longer around. Over the years, it slouched into disrepair and eventually bankruptcy. It was acquired in 2005 by a private developer, PRI X, part of the Cranston-based Procaccianti Companies. Providence developer and former Mayor Joseph Paolino also has a stake. In recent years, crews cleaning up an oil spill and building a wind farm have stayed there. But the hotel shut its doors for good a few years ago, a hulking edifice that some liken to a rearing pterodactyl but that others just call a fire trap.
While the DEM owns the land, the developers own the building itself, and they lease the land from the DEM. Both parties say they want to do something with the parcel other than help people shuttle over to Block Island.
But then there’s the wild card: the town of Narragansett itself wants to have its say too.
So far, the town’s take has been decidedly negative: PRI X has proposed several different ideas for the site, and gotten a reception ranging from frosty to outright hostile.
Responding to feedback from the town, PRI X came forward with a plan to put some retail on the site, then faced criticism that it was nothing more than a strip mall with a huge parking lot. In June, when the developers proposed a public park on the front of the property with the vast majority still to be decided, the Town Council asked: Where’s all the retail?
But some in Narragansett think it looks like they want to put up a massive surface parking lot, and they see politics at play. Procaccianti is one of the largest and most powerful developers in the state, and another person who has an ownership interest, Paolino, is no stranger to politics himself.
“It’s typical Rhode Island politics, at our expense,” said Ewa Dzwierzynski, a newly elected town councilwoman, at the meeting in June. “The town of Narragansett is going to suffer for investors making money. We’re being disregarded.”
Voccola said that wasn’t the case, and they’ve been trying to satisfy everyone. But critics in Narragansett like Dzwierzynski say the town could very well just cancel PRI X’s lease for the site, because it’s in violation of one of the key terms: operating a hotel there. They’ve gone so far as to ask the attorney general’s office to look into the situation. Dzwierzynski helped produce a YouTube video with dramatic music and drone footage of all those gulls to underscore their case.
“This is a great piece of property,” Dzwierzynski said in an interview. “They keep on saying it’s not, but I’m telling you, it could be so much more than a parking lot.”
Though some in town believe it is ultimately up to the Department of Environmental Management, Dzwierzynski wants Narragansett to have input into the site’s future. She developed her own request for proposals, and believes a boutique hotel, housing or other mixed-use development could go there.
Procaccianti declined to comment for this story. In meetings with town and state officials, company officials have pointed out that sea level rise might mean any new property built there would need 11 feet of freeboard because it’s in a floodplain — basically a development on stilts. That makes things more challenging and expensive. No boutique hotel would work there, the developers say, even if smelled like roses.
In spite of the local tensions, the process took a small but significant step forward on Friday, when the state agreed to extend its lease with PRI X. But instead of the normal five-year extension, the state gave the developer just six months, enough time to figure out what to do with the site besides a big parking lot. The state also jacked up rent, from $40,000 annually to nearly $180,000 annually.
The town has assessed the value of the building at $1.7 million, an amount that has been declining, while it has assessed the land itself at $1.8 million, an amount that has been increasing.
The Port of Galilee is a fishing village, first and foremost, and the state Department of Environmental Management wants to keep it that way. It’s investing millions in improvements at the port.
“DEM has a long history of cooperation with the Town of Narragansett on proposed changes in the port and we are committed to working on a plan for the property with the goal of preserving and enhancing the Port of Galilee as an asset that serves and supports Rhode Island’s fishing and tourism industries,” Michael Healey, a DEM spokesman, said in an email.
State officials met Friday to bless the new six-month lease. What might have otherwise been a sleepy meeting before an obscure committee instead laid bare the tensions at the heart of Galilee. For almost an hour, state officials spoke before the State Properties Committee about working together in harmony to come up with something that would please everyone — and avoid litigation.
The timeline: Working together with the state, PRI X will put out a request for proposals for what to do with the site by early October. Eventually a demolition schedule for the old Dutch Inn will be developed by early November.
Friday’s meeting was winding down when Voccola, the lawyer for the developer, spoke about all the barriers to redevelopment, including financing and the flood zone. The idea of a major development with a hotel was simply not practical, he said. Then he came around to the topic of smell.
“It does smell of fish,” Voccola said. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. Maybe not a mile in each direction, but it does right there.”
That did not go over well with locals in Narragansett, one of whom, Al Alba, spoke up on the Zoom.
“The way you insulted us again in that town by saying it’s a stinky village — did that village start stinking more now than it was 25 years ago, 30 years ago, when the Lighthouse Inn was doing wonderful?” Alba said, his voice rising. “Maybe it’s stinking now because your company let the existing building become a stomping ground for seagulls. I’ve been going to that area for 40 years, I don’t smell any stinky village. "
Voccola protested — he didn’t say the village was stinky, he said the area smelled of fish, but Alba persisted, underscoring the challenges ahead.
“You’re insulting me, you’re insulting everyone who loves Galilee,” Alba said. “It might just not be a good fit for you.”