2007-09-20 / Front Page

Voters say 'aye' to island farm purchase

By Tom Shevlin

In a resounding victory for island conservationists, a standing room only crowd of 402 registered voters unanimously approved a plan on Tuesday to purchase the development rights of roughly 145 acres of historic island farmland.

The vote, which came during a special Financial Town Meeting (FTM) at the Lawn Avenue School, ensures that approximately 1,000 continuous acres of central island land will be preserved as farmland in perpetuity.

The $9.75 million plan, put forth by the Conanicut Island Land Trust, combines federal, state, local, and private funding to purchase the development rights from the Dutra and Neale families on their respective farms.

The town, which had approved $3 million for the program at its annual budgetary FTM in June, asked voters to approve a bond issue for just over half of that amount, or $1.6 million plus an additional $500,000 from the town's capital reserves for a total cost of $2.1 million.

In addition to town funding, the plan relies on $3.5 million from the federal Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program, $800,000 from the Rhode Island Agricultural Land Preservation Commission, $750,000 from the Champlin Foundation, $418,000 from the Dutra and Neale families, and $2.1 million from private donations.

According to the terms and conditions of the sale, 120 acres of the 145 total must be maintained as farm pasture in perpetuity. The remaining 24 acres will be reserved for farmstead and outbuilding use by the farm owners. In addition, the sale grants the right for the town and land trust to develop and maintain two 10-foot-wide public access trails along North Road and Weeden Lane.

Town Council President David Long who will not be seeking reelection in November described the evening as "amazing" and "touching."

"This is my ninth and final Financial Town Meeting," Long said, "And I must say that this is the best one yet. This is a win-winwin event for everybody."

Tuesday's FTM stands in stark contrast to the town's recent annual meeting in which just over 70 residents attended.

At one point, town officials were seen checking the capacity limit for the room, however thankfully the roughly 400 voters and non-voters in attendance fell well below the allowed 700.

Conanicut Island Land Trust President Quentin Anthony, who briefly stood to address the crowd before quickly and quietly sitting back down, remarked that he couldn't recall a larger turnout. "I don't think there's been a turnout like this in my lifetime, or ever before," Anthony said. After surveying the audience, Anthony said he knew the vote would be positive and his words were not needed.

Soon after Anthony's aborted address, Council Vice President Julio DiGiando made the motion to approve the expenditure. After being seconded by a throng of eager residents, the gymnasium erupted in a drawn-out "aye." Following a reassuring moment of silence as the nays were called, the motion passed and the auditorium burst in cheers and applause.

DiGiando said that while he expected the result to have turned out as it did, he was surprised by the turnout.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser agreed. "I'm absolutely overwhelmed that this many people would attend a Financial Town Meeting," Keiser said. However, like DiGiando, Keiser was not surprised with the result. "People don't want to see what's most cherished to them go by the wayside," Keiser said.

Anthony agreed. "This community has always supported the protection of open space," Anthony said. "This was a continuation of that tradition."

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