As 2009 comes to a close, we reflect on the issues, people and changes that made headlines during the past year. Here, in no particular order, are this year’s top 10 news stories from the Jamestown Press:
Anonymous flyer mars Town Council election
The Nov. 3 election swept four new members – and one incumbent – into Town Council seats, leaving Robert Sutton and Michael Smith without a spot at the table. Michael White, Michael Schnack, William Murphy, Robert Bowen and Ellen Winsor were the top vote-getters in a race that focused largely on budget and long-term planning issues.
What made this election a major story, however, was the mailing of a one-page, unsigned letter to North End residents the weekend prior to the election – a letter that urged residents not to vote for Sutton and Smith, saying that the two backed a plan to tax residents with wells and septic systems for debt on the town sewer bonds. Letters to the editor decried the anonymous action and Jamestown police looked into the matter, but the writer(s) of the letter have yet to step forward.
In October, a British Virgin Islands jury deliberated for more than four hours before unanimously voting to convict islander David Swain, a former member of the Jamestown Town Council, of murdering his wife, Shelley Arden Tyre, on March 19, 1999, during the couple’s diving vacation to Tortola.
BVI authorities pursued a murder case against Swain, former owner of Ocean State Scuba, after he was convicted in a R.I. civil court in 2006 in a case brought by Tyre’s parents, Richard and Lisa Tyre. Islanders remain divided in their opinions of whether Swain is guilty of the crime. In December, Swain’s story – and footage of Jamestown – was featured on the national news magazine television program Dateline NBC.
Swain was sentenced to 25 years in prison and will be 99 when eligible for parole.
The weather was a story of its own
The rain would not go away. A cold, wet spring morphed into early summer on Jamestown and dampened the start of the tourist season. Island businesses blamed the weather for slow business at a time when the island is normally bustling with visitors.
A late December blizzard dumped 20 inches of snow on the island during the weekend before Christmas, delighting those hoping for a white Christmas and frustrating those who had hoped to get out for one last shopping weekend. Public works crews were out in force from 8 p.m. Saturday night right through until Monday morning clearing roadways. By Tuesday morning, sidewalks on Narragansett Avenue were almost completely clear and schools were open again, too.
Progress in preservation of island landmarks
The past year saw major moves to preserve pieces of Jamestown’s history, including the recommendation of the Planning Commission to make Shoreby Hill an historic district, the Conanicut Island Land Trust’s purchase of the Godena Farm and a major restoration of the Beavertail Lighthouse.
The potential historic district designation of Shoreby Hill met with some resistance from area residents, who expressed concern about limitations and restrictions on home improvements that they might face should the designation be made. The project remains under consideration.
In late July, the Conanicut Island Land Trust completed its $375,000 purchase of the Godena Farm, which includes 23 acres on the east side of North Main Road and 2.5 acres on the west side of the road that includes a house, a barn and a garage. CILT President Quentin Anthony said at the time that there was not a question in his mind that the farm would become a piece of property that all island residents can use.
In July, the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association launched a fundraising campaign to raise money for necessary repairs to the three buildings at the site. With monies procured through two grant programs — $227,000 from the Champlin Foundations and a $100,000 matching grant from the R.I. Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission — BLMA hired ABCORE Restorations Inc. of Narragansett to undertake the 11-month-long restoration project, which included replacing and repairing all deteriorated iron and metal work, replacing all window panes surrounding the light, adding new deck plates and repairing and replacing railings, balusters and castings, as well as masonry reconstruction work and repainting the interior of the gallery deck “watch room” of the lighthouse. Work was also done to the two keeper houses.
Major overhaul of town’s zoning ordinance
The Town Council unanimously approved a package of zoning amendments designed to encourage affordable housing development in Jamestown while maintaining the character of the Village. The amendments, which created a Technical Review Committee that will take a first look at applications to help streamline the process, also included a major re-vamp of the document’s language. Town Planner Lisa Bryer said she planned to re-write some of the language in “plain English” or lay terms. The proposed amendments initially met with some resistance because of some of the language included in the document. Those concerns included a “building of value” designation, a proposal to allow the addition of accessory apartments in the Special Development District as affordable housing units, concern about the use of accessory structures and storage containers, and concern about an increase in mixed uses within the commercial district.
Bryer and the Planning Commission spent much of the fall refi ning and re-tooling the document. It was passed by the Town Council in late October.
EZ Pass system comes online at Newport bridge
The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority completed installation of the EZ Pass – an electronic toll collection system – in January, marking the end of an era for islanders accustomed to tossing a token into the basket every time they crossed the Pell bridge. Beginning Feb. 1, tokens were no longer accepted as payment of the toll. In September, the cash toll for cars – long $2 – rose to $4, while EZ Pass holders were charged just 83 cents per trip.
Zero property tax increase in tough times
The tanking economy – some say the worst since the Great Depression – made global news in 2009 after a stock market crash had countless people watching their expenses rise and incomes plummet.
But Jamestown officials managed to push through a zero increase budget for the year, achieved largely through using some of the town’s budget surplus to pay down debt. More than 100 voters approved the $20.9 million combined school and municipal budget at the annual financial town meeting in June. The Town Council recommended that $716,114 from excess fund balances be used to pay off debts, while the town retained earnings from new real estate properties and saved by freezing salaries of nonunion department heads that make over $50,000 yearly. The town also entered into a regional public health care consortium, Group Health Benefits of Rhode Island. The property tax rate remained at $8.11 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
The future of Ft. Getty receives new attention
The Ft. Getty Master Plan Committee announced that it would complete an updated survey of Jamestown residents to help guide decision-makers as to long-term planning and usage for Ft. Getty.
Ideas considered this year for the site, long considered one of Jamestown’s most beautiful, included a sailing school, a wedding pavilion and a wind turbine. Controversy also arose as seasonal campers complained to the town about what they called “deplorable” conditions at the 35-acre park and campground. Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said earlier this year that the numbers the town is looking at to improve the campground are significant. “So we’ve reached a tipping point in looking at where we want to be in relation to [the income] Ft. Getty provides to the town,” he told the Press.
In November, Jamestown’s Wind Energy Committee endorsed Ft. Getty as the island’s most suitable site for a wind turbine – a subject still being debated as we head into the New Year.
Fire horn debate sounds again
The evergreen controversy over the town’s fire horn and its earsplitting volume resurfaced again in August after an air valve broke in the horn, leaving it silent for several weeks while a replacement part was ordered. The ensuing peace and quiet – along with no disruption in emergency service – had many downtown residents wondering aloud why the blasts were still necessary.
The fire department insisted that the horn is needed, given the fact that not all firefighters’ pagers work everywhere on the island and given the cost of upgrading to new technology that would let the town do away with the horn completely. A compromise of sorts was reached when new technology was installed that cut down on the number of blasts the horn blows. New yellow signs alerting pedestrians to the fact that the “fire horn can sound at any time” were also installed on either side of the fire station driveway.
Major municipal projects completedThis past year saw the refreshing of the town’s infrastructure with the completion of two significant municipal projects: A $3.8 million water treatment plant and the opening of the sometimes-controversial highway barn.
The new water treatment plant, which began operation in late May, has the ability to produce 500,000 gallons of clean water daily and offers state-of-the-art high-tech effi ciency. Jamestown Public Works Director Steve Goslee said at the time that the old water treatment plant could make only 350,000 gallons of water per day. The new system, which needs only 5,000 to 6,000 gallons of water per week for flushing of the system, is a vast improvement over the old system, which required about 20,000 gallons of water per day to flush the sand filtration system.
In July, construction of the longdebated highway barn was completed and town workers began moving into the structure, which includes a garage bay, a locker room and a multi-purpose room. The modern centralized location for the town’s public works crews made a huge difference in operations during the December 2009 blizzard, according to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, who said the new facility allowed quick repairs to equipment, as well as a place for workers to take a break and get some food during long shifts.