WARWICK, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and House Speaker Gordon Fox said Tuesday they are looking into whether the state can seize by eminent domain the site of a 2003 nightclub fire where 100 people were killed so that a memorial can be built there.
Families of the victims have been fighting for years to build a memorial at the site of the Feb. 20, 2003, blaze in West Warwick, which was started when pyrotechnics for the rock band Great White set fire to flammable foam that lined the walls of The Station nightclub.
The land is owned by a private company, which has so far refused to sell or donate it so that a permanent memorial can be erected. Families of fire victims and survivors have described the situation as a stalemate. A makeshift memorial with homemade crosses, photos of victims and flowers exists on the land. Families and survivors gather annually to remember the blaze.
Chafee told The Associated Press on Monday that he was open to the idea of taking the land by eminent domain after Dave Kane, the father of the youngest fire victim, called on the state to seize it. The governor told reporters Tuesday that his office is examining the legalities of seizing the land by eminent domain.
Fox on Tuesday told the AP through his spokesman, Larry Berman, that the state should look at taking the land, and that his staff was also exploring the issue, including how much the land would cost.
"He said, 'How do you put a price tag on 100 people's lives?'" Berman said.
The governor said that as the 10-year anniversary of the fire approached, it was an appropriate time to renew focus on the fire.
Chafee said he does not take seizing land lightly and said working with the landowner is preferable to invoking eminent domain. But he also pointed out that the state has seized land in the past for parks and said he asked his legal team to look at "the process and legalities of eminent domain."
"We have to proceed very deliberatively," Chafee said. "I'm very sensitive to the high emotions associated with this tragedy. ... If the families of the victims are unified, I'm very eager to work with them."
The family that owns the land did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Several relatives of those who died and fire survivors told the AP this week they were hopeful that the governor's attention would help break the impasse.
A "satellite" memorial in neighboring Warwick was scheduled to break ground Wednesday, concerning some families who worried the focus would be taken off efforts to place a memorial at the site of the fire. Berman told the AP that Fox shares a belief that the site of the fire is the most appropriate location for a memorial.
A lawyer who represented the state Economic Development Corp. in a previous eminent domain case said Tuesday that the governor's legal team will have to determine whether the purpose of taking the land is for a public use. Attorney Sam Zurier said both the Rhode Island Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have said it is up to legislators to define what qualifies as a public use.
"You don't need to plan on building a highway or a public building," he said, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed New London, Conn., to exercise eminent domain law to take over the property of several homeowners for commercial use.
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