2008-01-17 / Front Page

Keiser sets the record straight on farm buy

By Tom Shevlin

Hoping to set the record straight on the town's recently completed farmland buyback program, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser took to the floor of this week's Town Council meeting armed with a high-tech presentation to councilors and the approximately 50 island residents in attendance.

The meeting was the first time councilors were able to discuss the farmland preservation project since they met in special session on Christmas Eve and unanimously approved a resolution allowing the town to obtain $3 million in bonding to purchase the development rights to about 140 acres on two island farms after the Conanicut Island Land Trust had notified town officials that it was pulling out of the much publicized farm preservation deal over what it viewed as "material changes" in the agreement.

Keiser began his nearly hourlong Powerpoint presentation by hailing the farmland preservation project as "a great way to end the year." However, he also acknowledged that there has been confusion over what exactly happened to the land trust's involvement and what the impact would be to the town.

Throughout the nearly threeyear long process, Keiser emphasized that the foremost priority for the town and its partners was to maintain the agricultural nature of the Neale and Dutra farms. Keiser said the town had determined that maintaining the Dutra and Neale properties as open space was important to maintaining the character of the island, while the US Department of Agriculture and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management were invested in ensuring that the farms be maintained as working agricultural lands. The local-federal partnership made sense, Keiser noted. "Farms are by their very nature scenic and open spaces," he said. "The two go hand in hand."

Although the town was forced to authorize its maximum $3 million in town-approved bonding to secure the project, Town Councilman Robert Sutton made a point to note that the appraisal price was the same amount as the purchase price. Also worth noting, Sutton said, is that it was the town that approached the Neales and the Dutras. "It's important to recognize that we went to them," Sutton said.

Prior to the purchase agreement, the two farms were ripe for development. According to Kesier, the Dutra property had the potential of becoming severed into 12 house lots bordering North Main Road and Weeden Lane, plus several more 2 acre lots on the interior property, bringing the total potential to 30 lots. Additionally, the Neale farm, which is located just south of the Dutra property could have supported another 15 lots under its zoning.

Now, any future construction on either of the farms must be done in the spirit of state conservation values encoded in the Baseline Document Report. Such values include: the preservation of the land as agricultural, the protection of natural resources, and the maintenance of scenic and open spaces.

Further restrictions are also placed on the property to ensure that the conservation values are preserved, such as a prohibition on building any residential buildings, tennis courts, swimming pools, driveways, parking lots, utility poles, mobile homes, or any other permanent or temporary structure. No loam, peat, gravel, soil, or sand will be excavated. Also, no structure or land shall be sold separately or otherwise severed from either of the properties.

The farm owners, however, may construct buildings and parking areas for agricultural purposes, including buildings associated with retail sales, subject to the prior approval of the RI ALPC and the town. Further, any permitted structures are subject to an impervious surface limit of 2 percent of the total area of the premises.

While the town had discussed carving out building envelopes where future buildings would be permitted with the farm owners so as not to obstruct the view shed, Keiser said the Dutras were reticent to enter into an agreement that could hinder their farm's continued agricultural use. In what was a sticking point for negotiations with the CILT, the town agreed to allow future development on the Dutra property to be limited to one 3,000 square foot building within the approximately 500 foot viewshed border and must be agriculturally necessary, plus the retention of a five acre parcel for future generations' use. The agreement also stipulates that only products raised on the property will be allowed to be sold at a retail facility, and the owners have agreed to provide educational opportunities and public access to the community.

The Neales, meanwhile, have retained a four-acre lot surrounding

its existing buildings for future development.

Island residents should rest easy over concerns that large-scale agricultural buildings will obstruct the viewshed from North Main Road. "A farmer just doesn't build buildings for the sake of building, or in the case of Jamestown, annoy Jamestown residents," Sutton said.

Keiser also stressed that the farm owners have voluntarily agreed to enter into management plans with the town further to define the uses of the property.

Sutton added the Dutras did not make unreasonable demands or seek to change the agreement. According to Sutton, the Dutras dropped their only condition in order to make the deal happen. Joe Dutra "went out of his way to sign an agreement that didn't include his number one issue," Sutton said. "The point needs to be made that Joe Dutra didn't change a word. I think that should clearly be on the record."

Sutton, who sat on the RIALPC from 1982 - 2006, noted that in that span of time, the DEM participated in the purchasing of development rights to approximately 6,000 acres. "There has never been a legal challenge in court to any of those properties," he said.

At the end of the day, for 30 cents on the dollar...we did very well."

Open forum concerns

In the open forum, Daniel Capuano of 65 Cedar Lane urged councilors to "capitalize on the moment" and ask the Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority to give money to the town to use towards the school department. Keiser noted that the town had received $25,000 from RIBTA as an in-lieu payment in the last fiscal year, however, he noted that the town and the authority was due for renegotiation.

Also in the open forum, Ellen Windsor, of 736 East Shore Rd. took time to address the island's possible sole source aquifer designation, reminding residents that a sole source aquifer petition is in the town library and on the town's Web site for review.

In unfinished business, it was reported that the town has received four proposals for operation of the town-owned property at West Ferry, including proposals from Conanicut Marine Services, Jamestown Boat Yard, RI Mooring Services, and current leasee Dutch Harbor Boat Yard. Councilors addressed the issue of the West Ferry lease by suggesting that the town work with DHBY for one additional year in order to assess whether to enter into a long-term lease. Town Councilor Robert Sutton recommended that negotiations be conducted on a year-toyear basis for the next two or three years before a long-term lease can be negotiated. After a brief discussion, councilors voted affirmitively to give Keiser the authority to negotiate a proposed lease with DHBY pending final approval by the council.

Sole source aquifer

presentation set for February

Town Councilors will take up the issue of the island's designation as a sole source aquifer following a planned February public meeting at the Jamestown library. Determining whether the island qualifies as a sole source aquifer has been a much debated issue since it was brought to the attention of the previous council. The issue revolves around whether the majority of island residents derive their water from a single source.

Southwest Avenue

proposal received

The town has received a purchase and sale proposal from Church Community Housing for the development of the former town office complex to affordable housing, according to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser. The matter is set to be addressed at next week's meeting of the Town Council sitting as the Water and Sewer Commission.

Highway Barn progress

Friday was the closing date for the Request for Qualifications for construction of the town's new highway barn facility at Taylor Point. According to Keiser, the town has received 13 proposals from contractors throughout the area. Interviews with five or six candidates will be conducted and recommendations will be brought back to the Town Council within the month.

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