Year in Review
Town Council’s focus was on projects in 2006
The year 2006 well may go down in Jamestown history as the year construction finally began on a long-overdue new town hall.
Groundbreaking for the new complex took place in October and work has continued not only on time, but also about two weeks ahead of schedule.
Officials and residents have known for decades that a bigger and better center for local government was needed. They had a design created several years ago to do just that, but the project was sidelined. The design was updated and cheered by townspeople last year. The office complex is expected to be completed by this coming summer.
But a new town hall is just one of a number of projects underway to improve the town’s infrastructure.
Public works upgrades
The town is on the verge of starting the construction of a new water treatment plant. It has taken all year to fine tune plans for a building located at the current plant’s site, which is on environmentally sensitive land just north of the Great Creek on North Main Road. The town is also about to start a complete upgrade of its more than 20-year-old wastewater treatment plant at Taylor Point. Months of negotiations were needed to fit the needed improvements into a fixed construction budget. The contract for this project was due to be signed this week.
A second million-gallon water storage tank was built this year. Structural details are now just about complete, and the water tower will be painted and become operational when the weather warms up.
Town officials took assertive action this year on new buildings for municipal operations, and they put into motion a massive cleaning of town grounds previously littered with remnants of public works equipment. The cleanup was enabled by new use of bonded lease/purchase options to replace ailing payloaders, dump trucks, road sweepers, and other highway department equipment.
The Town Council was able to auction off some of the scrap metal from this year’s demise of the town junkyards scattered around town. The councilors also led an aggressive recycling program for all townspeople and are poised to rev up that recycling program that will both help the environment and help the budget needed for removal of town trash.
Of course, none of the progress would have been made if it were not for the agreement of taxpayers and municipal water customers to foot the multi-million dollar bills for these improvements to the town’s infrastructure. Ironically, only 160 voters, or less than half of one percent of the the town’s 4,516 registered voters, approved this spending. They did it with a hand vote of about 3-1, bonding up to $3 million for the new town hall complex, described as both potentially historic and award-winning for this small island community. Voters also approved $550,000 for the five-year lease/purchase of major public works equipment.
Taxpayers and water customers in previous years approved other funding for infrastructure work on which action started in 2006.
Town officials in 2006 put their energies into several non-material matters of community infrastructure to work on such matters as establishing a center for town teens, who generally are not troublesome but who have been troubled by their youth program being virtually homeless.
Town Councilors spent almost a year on the subject of youth needs before recently deciding to re-establish
the use of the Community Center as the central location of all town youth programming. Teens had been gotten edged out as primary benefactors of the Community Center by the diversity of activities there.
Youth workers zipped through a hodge-podge of possibilities for a teen center before returning to the role of the Community Center for the teens, even though one councilor quibbled over the term “teen center” versus “teen programming.”
Need for a teen center was first identified about three years ago by sixth-graders, who brainstormed about the needs as a school project, and then brought their ideas to the council and community leaders, who helped get an important three-year grant to find solutions.
Town leaders in 2006 continued work toward meeting the state’s affordable housing requirements, thinking primarily of those who work for the town but cannot afford the costs of housing on the island. The councilors and other officials have steadily supported all possible work to meet what has become a goal of 10 per cent as the number of housing units to be designated affordable. The latest effort surfaced only last week when the council heard pleas from its committee workers to designate the Town Offices site on Southwest Avenue for the housing after all town departments move into their new town hall center next year.
Before making a commitment, council members asked for data on a $50 million state fund for affordable housing efforts, and they ordered an appraisal of the townowned Southwest Avenue parcel.
No commitments have been made about who will build and operate new affordable housing on the site. It could be the town itself, a community or non-profit organization, or one or more for-profit developers who could negotiate with the town for ways to make the project attractive to developers while keeping it affordable for the intended residents.
Councilors expect to schedule a workshop in early 2007 to assemble information from the various departments and committees already gathering pieces of the data needed to make affordable housing happen here.
It may seem cynical to note the one municipal failure of 2006, just as it has been for over two decades — the failure to come to a conclusion on where to build a new public works barn. The matter was the subject of much general discussion, technical modification, hand wringing, and bad-mouthing from both or all sides of the issue.
Town officials have been meeting in executive sessions to figure out their next moves to get a barn.
Opponents to the barn being built at or near the former landfill on the north end of the island succeeded in getting the state to conduct tests at the landfill area and examine a series of plans that would include the barn. The state review resulted in expensive requirements that might allow the barn to be built at the north end, but residents there are apparently poised to take legal action to block any such plan.
The goal of North End Concerned Citizens is to stop the barn to ensure that the ground water that supplies their water wells remains unpolluted. Town officials are trying to identify a plan or location to meet the public works department’s needs without bringing a lawsuit against the town, according to the councilors.
Meanwhile, just a few weeks ago, the Conanicut Island Art Association announced its hope to acquire the current highway barn if action is ever taken on a new barn. The current 5,000-squarefoot public works garage at Fort Wetherill was once a war munitions building. It is in dilapidated condition. The artists want to make it into a showcase for all art forms in the community.
A new town administrator
In 2006, the town fell under the spell of a new town administrator – Bruce Keiser of South Kingstown, who started last January.
Much infrastructure work was at some stage of start when Keiser arrived, but he had important roles in continuing them, for which he has been praised. He scheduled bids and work starts, negotiated contracts to meet budget limits, gathered data for others to act, and has been scoring high in over-all handling of general budgeting.
Townspeople in late 2006 enlisted town officials to look into wind energy as a way to power municipal facilities, if not homes and businesses on the island. Officials in turn bookmarked wind energy as the next major action to be considered in the coming year, starting with naming seven volunteers to a wind power study committee. More than double that number are vying for a seat on that newly created panel.
Using wind energy nowadays is a renewal of an age-old way to power a community’s needs. The historic windmill on North Main Road is an original example of wind power here. Contemporary activists, here on the island and elsewhere, are claiming discovery rights to their rediscovery of the existence of wind power.
Amidst other multi-year problems, islanders continue to anguish over liquid natural gas (LNG) facilities elsewhere in the region that could directly impact the town. Residents have been on alert and on standby against catastrophes predicted by those who oppose the development of LNG terminals in populated areas of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
The proposed Providence location seemed knocked out of the running by a 2005 federal decision, but hisses of whispers occasionally are heard about variations of plans for a terminal there. The real threat is from federally authorized plans for a terminal in Fall River, Mass. Another round of hearings, the latest on dredging, were conducted in November. Work continues to be pushed forward despite ongoing attempts by residents and officials to block the terminal.
In 2006, the LNG developers made an end run around an action that LNG opponents thought would really settle the matter: Massachusetts refused to demolish a relatively narrow bridge that could not accommodate the 850- foot LNG tankers. The LNG promoters then announced they would use smaller tankers, even though those 725-foot vessels would need to make twice as many trips as the larger ships to deliver about the same amount of LNG.
Several actions against the proposed Fall River terminal remain outstanding while the LNG interests continue with plans on the fronts that are open to them. The preparation and permitting actions are seen as involving more years of preparation, even if no opposition, including court actions, were pending.
On the community front of animals and humaneness, in 2006 town officials have been made aware of a growing need for an is- land-based animal shelter and possibly a need for a tighter leash law. Options for either goal were not specific at the end of the year.
Officials also continue to work on the double-edged problem of a growing deer population that pits anti-hunting animal lovers against pro-hunting people and propertyowners affected by the diseasecarrying ticks the deer distribute and by the over-grazing that results from too many deer on the island. Ongoing work on the issues is expected. Efforts are being made to get owners of five acres of land or more to open their properties to hunters. The town also intends to make arrangements to have some 50 acres of town reservoir property open to deer hunting next season and thereafter.
Among non-hunting efforts will be a demonstration of University of Rhode Island innovations to deal directly with deer ticks. Arrangements are being made to hold the event this spring at a central island location.
Deer hunting with bow and arrow at Beavertail State Park this season has made little impact on the deer herd, but state officials overseeing that activity said it has been important to show that hunting at the park can be safe, and they expect deer hunting there to be more effective in future seasons.