2007-07-03 / Editorial

Council votes to site highway garage at Taylor Point site

By Tom Shevlin

Island residents will fi- nally have the opportunity to approve the location of the town's controversial highway barn project.

After more than two decades, one failed referendum, and countless debates, the town council voted in a split 3- 2 decision Monday in favor of locating the town's new highway barn facility adjacent to the Newport Bridge on upper Taylor Point.

The council's decision, which is subject to approval by voters in a referendum slated for Tuesday, Aug. 28, came during a meeting that drew a standing room only crowd of over 70 island residents.

Three council members favored the Taylor Point property over Lot 47, which abuts the town's transfer station on North Main Road: Council President David Long, Vice President Julio DiGiando, and Barbara Szepatowski. Councilors William Kelly and Michael Schnack voted in favor of the Lot 47 proposal.

The Taylor Point property, which had been subject to a land acquisition from the Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority (RIBTA), is not far from a proposed site which was overwhelmingly rejected by voters on lower Taylor Point in 2004. Meanwhile, Lot 47, which had been purchased by the town specifically for the purpose of constructing a public works facility had been recommended twice by town committees, but had come under intense opposition by north end residents in recent years.

In previous council meetings, a decision over the location of the highway barn was delayed for several reasons involving both Lot 47 and the RITBA property. Prior to the council's vote, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser reported affirmatively on each of those issues.

Regarding Lot 47, Keiser had reported in May that two developments had delayed his final review of the site.

The first related to concerns brought up by the North End Concerned Citizens to the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) regarding additional permitting over the traffic pattern at the transfer station. According to Keiser, DEM Director W. Michael Sullivan had deferred any decision to his staff. Consequently, Keiser reported that the existing plan could proceed, but indicated that he had asked the town's engineers, GZA Environmental, for a cost estimate should the town in fact need to excavate per DEM recommendations.

The second involved is Lot 48, which abuts the proposed barn site at Lot 47. According to Keiser, Lot 48 is still subject to a wetlands permit approval, which if denied, could disrupt the town's landfill closure plan thereby delaying construction on Lot 47 as well.

In the most recent development surrounding the transfer station site, Keiser also reported on a proposal to purchase Lot 47 by a neighboring homeowner. After placing a Request for Proposal (RFP) last week, the town officially received an offer of $150,000 to purchase Lot 47 for restricted passive use from the same homeowners with conditions that the town abandons both Cedar Street and the lower portion of Prospect Avenue in order to create a unified parcel. Should the bid be accepted, the town will reserve the right to cancel the sale for whatever reason up to the time of closing. It is scheduled to be heard at the next regular council meeting.

In the final previously unresolved issue surrounding the barn location, Keiser reported that the RITBA board of directors officially had approved the sale of the Taylor Point property to the town for a total amount of $97,500. According to Keiser, the town originally had submitted a purchase price of $90,000, which was countered by the Bridge Authority at $125,000. That total of $97,500 includes the cost of two appraisals and various legal and environmental outlays incurred by RITBA over the town's purchasing inquest.

According to Keiser, should the bridge authority site be approved by voters, the town would also assume any additional legal or environmental costs beyond an initial few thousand dollars, which RITBA has agreed to pick up.

With the town's various concerns sufficiently addressed, council members took the opportunity to publicly voice their opinions between Lot 47 and the Taylor Point facility prior to casting their official votes.

Voicing support for the Taylor Point property, Councilor Barbara Szepatowski expressed regret over the divisiveness that the highway barn decision has created. Saying that she was "greatly saddened by what's gone on over the last year and a half," Szepatowski sought to deflect criticism away from north end residents for creating a two-site controversy by taking sole responsibility for once again proposing the Taylor Point area as an alternative to Lot 47.

According to Szepatowski, an environmental engineer, "in the end, I do not believe that a highway barn should be located on or near the landfill." Szepatowski, who said she had met with 56 island residents to discuss the highway barn issue, thanked everyone who had taken the time to express their feelings on the issue with her but concluded "my feelings have always been you leave a landfill alone."

Councilman William Kelly disagreed. Kelly, who described the town's current highway facility as "absolutely deplorable," said that he was convinced that Lot 47 represented the best option.

In an animated presentation in which he outlined the process of safely capping the landfill, Kelly cited his experience as a longtime public works director to advocate for the safety and economy of Lot 47. Kelly also argued that despite their objections, north end residents would actually benefit from a highway barn in their neighborhood. Specifically warning north end residents should the Taylor Point property be approved "don't feel you have won," Kelly argued that a catch basin could be built to provide the fire department with additional resources in the event of a fire in the north end.

Councilman Michael Schnack echoed Kelly's sentiments and added that the threat of lawsuits or the loss of popularity would not influence his decision. Schnack said that the reports he had seen by both the state and the town did not indicate that a highway barn facility at Lot 47 would be a threat to residents' wells or the town's water supply. In fact, citing residential activities such as boat washing and chemical-laden lawn and garden maintenance, Schnack argued that "the biggest threat to our wells" is homeowners themselves.

"I've looked at both sides; I've visited both sides" Schnack said "I believe that the best location is at Lot 47."

Council Vice President Julio Di- Giando, who had been an opponent of the 2004 plan to site the highway barn at lower Taylor Point, disagreed. In a decision that he said was based on three factors: locating the barn where it can't be seen, where it won't impact the neighborhood, and where there are no environmental concerns, DiGiando joined with Szepatowski in supporting the upper Taylor Point property.

"I couldn't support lower Taylor Point" DiGiando said, "but I can support upper Taylor Point."

With an evenly divided vote, Council President David Long, also an opponent of the 2004 Taylor Point plan said his position was well known. "I have always been a supporter of Lot 47," he said. "However…we have a site on upper Taylor Point that will work."

With that, Long cast his support for locating the highway barn facility at Taylor Point and urged voters to approve the referendum in order for the town to move on. "Every day we wait, the cost goes up" he said.

Visibly exacerbated by the years of contentious debate and inestimable delays, Long leveled blame for the project's hold up on "fear tactics" used by the North End Concerned Citizens. "The North End Concerned Citizens, in a mean-spirited way, played on people's fears…and I am angered by the hell they've put the town through all these years," he said. However, Long said that he had to put aside his personal feelings and "do what is responsible and right for the town."

Still, Long lamented the divisions the barn facility had created on the island and evoked one of the concerns expressed by north end residents in his remarks. "In a way, a toxic plume was released in the town."

Concluding, Long said that he hoped the town could now begin to move past the highway barn saga. "There's a whole lot more to life; a whole lot more to be done in Jamestown," he said.

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