Ancient Indian Village in Rhode Island Pits Preservation Against Property Rights

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Long before this town existed, there were Indians of that name who lived, camped, hunted, fished and grew maize in the woods and fields along the shoreline.

Now, archaeological evidence of the Narragansetts’ early presence in Rhode Island has ignited a debate over private development on a site that some consider to be culturally and historically significant. The state maintains it has the regulatory authority to stop development on the site. The developer says this amounts to a taking of his land, for which he is constitutionally entitled to compensation, a claim the state denies.

At issue is a 25-acre parcel in Narragansett, a town of about 16,500 people that hugs the southern coast of Rhode Island. The parcel is part of a 67-acre tract on which the developer, Downing Salt Pond Partners, wants to build 53 single-family houses.

Downing has a permit from the state dating from 1992 that allows the subdivision. The state says the permit was conditioned on the developer’s agreeing to respect the site’s archaeological significance, which was established in a preliminary survey in the 1980s. The developer has owned the property, originally 100 acres, since 1985 and has built a shopping plaza and 26 single-family homes on it.

A 2006 survey in preparation for the new subdivision revealed what archaeologists consider the remains of a Narragansett Indian village dating from 1100 to 1300. In 2007, the state Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission recommended that Rhode Island revoke the permit. The state says it has a right to protect its cultural and historic heritage and last summer issued a cease-and-desist order to stop bulldozing on the site.

The developer maintains it has sought clarification from the state about the status of the permit but could not get a response, prompting a lawsuit in federal court.

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