2009-08-13 / News

Controversy washes over plans for fishing pier

By Phil Zahodiakin

The 1,600-ft. remnant of the old Jamestown bridge has become a lightning rod for controversy over a fishing pier proposed for the site of the rusting trestle – which must be demolished by the end of 2010.

At this point, it is impossible to predict if a major fishing pier will ever rise in the West Passage. The R.I. Department of Transportation has allocated funds to demolish what remains of the bridge, but the RIDOT Transportation Improvement Program budget for fiscal years 2009-2012 does not allocate any funding for a fishing pier.

RIDOT is about to apply for all of the remaining permits necessary to tear down the trestle remnant, and the department remains “committed to the goal of demolishing the last piece of the old bridge by the end of 2010,” said RIDOT’s chief public affairs officer, Dana Nolfe.

She acknowledged that “the TIP budget does not provide any funds for a fishing pier, nor has it ever provided a fishing pier allocation in the past.” Without any RIDOT funding, congressional earmarks or federal “stimulus” money, the future of the fishing pier seems to be in serious doubt.

Or is it?

“Our capital budget allocates $50,000 for [fishing pier] design and preparations during this fiscal year, and a quarter-million for each of the subsequent fiscal years through 2013,” Department of Environmental Management Director W. Michael Sullivan said. “So, the fishing pier is alive and well. But, even if it isn’t eventually built, there is also the opportunity to construct access to the state beach [near the bridge remnant] for public use of riparian waterfront.”

Legislation enacted in 1987 stipulated a fishing pier at the site of the old bridge, which was demolished in 2006. The remaining trestle would have sufficed for that purpose, but the Army Corps of Engineers concluded that the trestle had deteriorated beyond the point of suitability for recreational use, and ordered its demolition by Dec. 31, 2010.

In order to demolish the bridge, RIDOT will need permits from the Army Corps, the Coast Guard and the Coastal Resources Management Council, along with a water quality certification (ensuring that the demolition does not cause ecological or water-quality impairments) from DEM. Nolfe said that “the department has an okay from CRMC, and we will probably be talking to the Coast Guard, DEM and the Corps of Engineers in the next few weeks.”

Sullivan said DEM will not hold public hearings on the waterquality permit for the demolition, but, he added, “It’s not as if we will be secretive about it.”

Because the 1987 fishing-pier law had been repealed, there isn’t any legal mandate to build a pier in the footprint of the trestle. However, over the years, the idea of a West Passage fishing pier has been buoyed by such groups as Save the Bay and the Saltwater Anglers Association.

But their support has been parried by local opposition to a fishing pier.

Opponents have included the Plum Beach Club, whose president, Susan Craven, said members of the Saunderstown club “were especially concerned that people using a fishing pier would be throwing trash in the water.”

Opponents from other West Passage towns and neighborhoods coalesced into an ad hoc group, the North Kingstown Coastal Preservation Association, whose former volunteer spokesman, Anthony DeLuca, said the group had several missions.

“We wanted to make sure that 1987 law was repealed, that there weren’t any monies applied for the purpose of building a fishing pier park and that the deteriorating remnant was removed on a timely basis,” he said.

DeLuca said his group opposed the fishing pier on the grounds that “it would have been built 150 feet away from [the] lowest-lying section of the Jamestown bridge, and it would have been made of wood, which we think is a danger for the bridge because a hurricane surge would destroy the fishing pier and smash it into the bridge piers. Our other concern was the amount of money — $5 million — that the fishing pier would have cost. Our state bridges are the worst in the country and our roads rank second or third in their need for money to repair them. The state is short some $300 million a year for the next 10 years in what they need to spend on bridges, roads and ramps. There simply isn’t enough money to build a lavish fishing pier when our infrastructure is crumbling before our very eyes.”

Sullivan declined to speculate on the future of the fishing pier, adding, “The only thing my staff and I are committed to at this time is a very responsible design for parking accommodations at Plum Beach Point on state-owned land, along with the creation of some viewing areas. If a fishing pier is not built at that site, there still is capacity to build a stairway to the beach, which would allow the public to have access to public waters. There is clearly some community opposition, to which we will remain sensitive, but there are those who don’t want ‘those people’ in their neighborhood. However, it is state property, and we believe the public has a right to access the waterfront on that property.”

“We have a plan,” Sullivan continued, “to build 10 public fishing piers across the state over the next 10 years. The Van Zandt pier in Newport is the first one nearing completion and the next one would be the ‘Green Lane’ pier on former Navy land on Aquidneck Island. Many of our citizens don’t have access to a boat, and many of them fish not just for recreation, but for sustenance. So, we are planning a well-thought-out system of access piers to accommodate all of the public.”

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