NARRAGANSETT — For the better part of two years, a dispute over the future of a vacant seagull-infested hotel and its guano-streaked parking lot has pitted the town of Narragansett against powerful developers, with the state caught in the middle. Now the fight is going to court.
PRI X LLC, the company that operates parking at the former Lighthouse Inn site across from the ferry to Block Island, filed a lawsuit against the town of Narragansett on March 16 in state Superior Court. The complaint comes in response to a February order from the town to demolish the Lighthouse Inn hotel structure, as well as the town’s separate demand for a special use permit to operate parking there.
The complaint argues the town has no right to tell PRI X to demolish the property, because PRI X doesn’t even own the building in question. It only leases the building from the state, which owns the property through its development of the Port of Galilee, a fishing village within the town of Narragansett, PRI X argues.
“The broader issue is, can the owner of the property, where the owner is the state, be ordered to do anything with that building?” said John Tarantino, the lawyer for PRI X.
The answer PRI X has offered in court is no. PRI X’s suit is seeking a court order that the demolition order is null and void and that a special use permit isn’t required.
The 100-room Lighthouse Inn in Galilee always was a likely candidate for the wrecking ball. After years of disuse, it is now little more than a roosting spot for seagulls, some of which have managed to get inside, flapping their wings in the hallways, preening in what was once the tropical-themed pool area. Though not everyone agrees on what to do with the site, multiple proposals to redevelop it would have done away with the existing hotel building.
What’s still unclear, though, is who will be responsible for that demolition.
The town’s Feb. 10 demolition order put the burden on PRI X. The order, addressed to PRI X, said that after a site visit, the town had determined the building had to come down. The order cited hazardous dust and debris, falling brick, a deteriorating structure, and other issues..
The town’s separate demand for a special use permit to operate a parking lot there — similar demands went out to other parking lot operators in Galilee — seemed to ramp up pressure on a developer that has attracted vocal critics in town.
Now, in court, PRI X says the town can’t order the demolition because of state ownership of the property in Galilee. And it argues, the town can’t ask for a special use permit because town zoning doesn’t apply to state land.
Though it’s clear the state itself does own the land — both under the Lighthouse Inn and around the Port of Galilee — the question of who actually owns the hotel building itself isn’t so straightforward.
The suit PRI X filed differs from what PRI X said when it filed a 2021 lawsuit to lower its property tax bill. It described PRI X as the “owner” of the improvements at 307 Great Island Road. Town tax assessor records also list PRI X as the owner of the building, though not the land.
Tarantino, the PRI X lawyer, said he could not speak to what the previous litigation — which he did not file — said or didn’t say, or what the Narragansett assessor database website says. PRI X does pay property taxes there, but only as a leaseholder of the building from the state, he said.
“There’s no question that PRI X does not own that building,” Tarantino said.
The state Department of Environmental Management declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Narragansett Town Council President Ewa Dzwierzynski said in an e-mail: “I question the merits of PRI X’s complaint.” She said she had always understood the building to be privately owned, with the land owned by the state.
“Since the building in question is privately owned, was privately constructed, and pays taxes to the Town, any building code matters should fall under the jurisdiction of the Town,” said Dzwierzynski, who emphasized she was speaking for herself and not the entire council. “I believe PRI X must comply with the local building official’s demolition order and the ownership status of the land is irrelevant.”
PRI X is a joint venture of Procaccianti Companies and Joseph R. Paolino Jr., two major players in the Rhode Island real estate world.
The hotel, once known as the Dutch Inn, closed to guests a couple of years ago. But PRI X continued to operate the parking lots there.
The company did so with a lease from the state, at least for the parking lot land. The Department of Environmental Management oversees the Port of Galilee, which the state acquired decades ago through condemnation to develop a fishing port. The state agency prioritizes the commercial fishing industry in its stewardship of the area, a major part of the state’s blue economy.
The 5-acre Lighthouse Inn site is smack dab in the middle of all of it. In 2021, the Department of Environmental Management and PRI X solicited proposals for redevelopment there. Three plans came forward. PRI X’s own proposal, which included a small hotel and shops, was greeted with skepticism by some in Narragansett who didn’t think it was ambitious enough. One company proposed a fish processing plant. The town itself put forward what it described as a bold and complex proposal with housing, office space, and other mixed-use development.
In the end, none of them got picked. Instead, the state said the Lighthouse Inn would be demolished and split apart from the broader property.
It’s still unclear how much that will cost and, as the lawsuit indicates, who will call the shots.