2008-02-14 / Front Page

Council doubts fishing pier harbors 'critical dangers'

By Tom Shevlin

Island conservationists are clearing a path toward realizing a longtime goal of creating a northsouth connecting trail through the great salt marsh, while opponents to a proposed fishing pier at the site of the former Jamestown Bridge ran up against skepticism and consternation at Monday's meeting of the Town Council.

Addressing councilors during the open forum, North Kingstown residents representing the North Kingstown Coastal Preservation Association (NKCPA), presented a PowerPoint presentation entitled "Pretty. Costly. Lethal." outlining what they claim are "critical dangers" to the neighboring bridge and coastline. Pointing to images of Hurricane Katrina, opponents argued that Rhode Island was "living on borrowed time" and "the survival of the bridge is a matter of urgency."

According to NKPCA spokesman Donald Kern, constructing a fishing pier at the site of the old Jamestown Bridge will create an immediate danger to the new Jamestown Verrazano Bridge. Echoing concerns he brought before the council last fall, Kern claimed that storm surge heights amplified by the bay's shallow water near the bridge would transform the trestle structure into "a battering ram."

Kern, a retired marine and submarine engineer, said he brought his concerns to the state's Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Management engineers in 2003, however wasn't satisfied by their response.

Neither was NKCPA President Anthony DeLuca. "RIDEM can't chew gum and walk very well," DeLuca said.

Councilor Robert Sutton, who recently retired from RIDEM, volleyed back, "I can chew gum at the same time," and assured the group that any fishing pier at the Plum Point location would have to meet the same standards as the Verrazano bridge.

Kern and DeLuca want RIDOT officials to commit to building a pier that can withstand 150 mph winds and a 10-foot surge. However, by their own admission, the cost of constructing such a structure would be prohibitive and current plans that do not meet that standard fall short. "The state can't afford to spend $5 million on a battering ram," DeLuca said.

After their presentation, the pier opponents encountered a battering ram of skepticism in the form of town councilors.

"I have to say gentlemen, your presentation smacks of 'not in my backyard,'" Councilor William Kelly said.

Councilor Barbara Szepatowski also shared her concerns. While she agreed that in light of the state's economic woes $5 million could "probably be better spent," she was skeptical of the pair's Katrina invoking presentation.

"I worked on the Jamestown Bridge. I saw how deep the pilings went...I don't think it's a fair comparison," she said.

Reining in what was becoming a testy interaction, Council President Julio DiGiando explained that while neighbors, Jamestown and North Kingstown residents likely had different viewpoints on the issue. "We need to look at it from a Jamestown perspective," he said.

Walking trail discussed

While Plum Point fishing pier opponents seemed to run into a thicket of opposition, island conservationists began plotting a course that could lead them to the creation of a cross-island trail network.

Spurred by Sutton, councilors took up the issue of constructing a trail network that would extend from the north end to Weeden Lane and border along the Dutra and Neale farms to the west, ultimately connecting to established trails through the Conanicut Island Sanctuary.

Conservation Commission Chairman Chris Powell said that the trails project was an issue his group had been working on for several years. Sutton brought up the issue after learning that the town had received a $50,000 grant for the project that had yet to be used.

According to Powell, the project is similar to others the town has taken on in the past and could be a "community event." Many of the island's trails have been cleared by volunteers, including the sanctuary trail located next to the Jamestown golf course which is comprised of both natural paths and man-made boardwalks. A similarly comprised trail could also be constructed through the Great Creek and up to Weeden Lane. Powell asked that the Conservation Commission work with the town administrator and town planner to move the project along. Councilors agreed. Looking toward Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, Council President DiGiando nodded, "You're in charge."

Sole Source Aquifer

Councilors also voiced their thoughts regarding the island's designation as a Sole Source Aquifer in the run-up to an EPA meeting scheduled for last night.

Both Councilors Kelly and Sutton said they were leery of adding additional layers of bureaucracy that according to Sutton could make local governance "bogged down." Meanwhile, Kelly wondered what the upside was for island residents. Without the incentive of grants or federal funding opportunities, Kelly questioned the wisdom of "adding another layer" to an already regulated development process.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said that although the town would appear to meet the criteria for SSA designation, he was unsure if it would ever have an impact on island life. According to Keiser, SSA designation is meant to protect a community's primary water source from major federal projects such as road and airport construction. Those types of projects are not likely on the island, Keiser said, and the designation does not apply to landfill remediation - a project which has been viewed by some to be at the heart of the designation effort.

Still, Keiser said that the designation could serve an educational role. That aspect is appealing to Councilor Barbara Szepatowski, who said the EPA designation could play a valuable public education role, while she also said she could foresee federal funds being allocated for SSA designated communities in the future.

Sutton disagreed. "I sense Jamestown is very much aware of the limitations of living on an island...and I can't get my head around what insight someone from Boston is going to bring to someone living in Jamestown."

Open Forum

In the open forum, Rep. Bruce Long (R-Jamestown, Middletown) provided a legislative update on several items of island interest including his on-going effort to reduce school busing costs. Long reported that he didn't foresee his bill seeking to eliminate mandatory busing as a priority this session, however said he believed it was important to continue bringing the matter to the attention of assembly leaders. Currently, according to Long, Jamestown receives less in state education aid than it costs to transport school children off island.

Long also reiterated his opposition to the supplemental budget and pledged to vote against any reduction in state aid to the island.

Karen Krider, president of the Conanicut Island Art Association, rose to remind councilors of the tax incentives for artists associated with arts district legislation.

In other business, councilors:

• Accepted the resignation of Eric T. Lexow from the Jamestown Police Pension Committee.

• Discussed renewing efforts, in conjunction with Rep. Long to establish a Conanicut Island Arts District.

• Accepted a letter from Nancy Bennett expressing her appreciation for her appointment to the Planning Commission.

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