2010-11-04 / Front Page

Town to explore agreement with Narragansetts

By Phil Zahodiakin

A Narragansett Indian request for a supervisory role in Jamestown excavations performed under the Safe Routes to Schools program – and possibly other construction on the island – will be addressed in order to tap state grants awarded for Safe Routes’ work.

The request was discussed during a Town Council workshop on Oct. 25.

Safe Routes is a national program intended to encourage students to walk or ride a bike to school by ensuring that bike paths and sidewalks are well maintained.

The Narragansetts want to ensure that tribal artifacts – particularly burial artifacts – are not displaced or destroyed by Safe Routes’ work. Under the National Historic Preservation Act, state and federal agencies are required to consult the tribes when their projects could affect a historic site.

Jamestown has applied for, and received, two Rhode Island grants for Safe Routes’ work: $251,500 in 2007 and $203,750 this year. None of the grant money has been spent; however, in 2009, the town withdrew $170,000 from the School Capital Reserve Fund to repair a Watson Avenue sidewalk that leads to the Lawn Avenue School.

Although the sidewalk was identified in the Jamestown Land Use Plan for School Grounds and Neighborhoods as a potential Safe Routes’ project, the town decided to expedite the work and use its own money because the repairs were a high priority.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said, during the Watson Avenue work, “no Indian artifacts were found, and, if they had been, they would have been treated properly and respectfully.”

The Land Use Plan has identifi ed $3,356,619 in potential Safe Routes’ repairs and improvements. The Town Council adopted the Land Use Plan in 2008.

State officials have asked Jamestown to hammer out a three-party oversight agreement before using any state grants for Safe Routes’ work. Besides the town, the parties to the agreement would be the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Office and the Narragansett Indian Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

In a June 16, 2008 letter to then- Council President Julio DiGiando, the Tribal Office requested that “for all future building permits in Jamestown that require ground disturbance, a [state Historical Preservation Office]-permitted archeological clearance survey shall be required” to protect any arti- facts that may exist at the site.

In a Jan. 14, 2009 letter to Town Planner Lisa Bryer, the state Preservation Office said it “would like to begin the process of drafting an agreement,” but the earlier council did not initiate the drafting process. The current councilors, moreover, expressed serious reservations about the requested terms of an oversight agreement during the workshop.

In its June 2008 letter, the Tribal Office wrote that, under agreement protocols, Jamestown would formally ask the tribe “to perform onsite monitoring of all archeology to confirm Tribal burial protection sufficiency” whenever Jamestown issued a building permit requiring any ground disturbance – with the costs of monitoring to “be borne by the individual developer.”

It is not explicitly clear, however, whether the agreement would apply only to ground disturbance on, or near, the sites of known Indian burial grounds – or whether the agreement would apply to every site of permitted ground disturbance on Conanicut Island.

Keiser said that in an earlier discussion with a tribal official, he asked if there was any other municipal ordinance stipulating tribal oversight for permitted ground disturbance available for review.

“I was told there wasn’t one,” Keiser informed the councilors, “which means that any agreement we reach – if we were to reach an agreement – would be the first of its kind in the country.”

Councilor Bill Murphy warned that an ordinance requiring thirdparty oversight for all permitted ground disturbance would undermine existing and future title insurance policies because, without an unfettered guarantee of development rights (within the scope of zoning restrictions), there would be a cloud over the titles to all island properties.

Keiser told the Press that he agreed with Murphy’s warning: “Zoning ordinances specify what you can and cannot do with your property. It’s one thing to specify oversight during excavation, but what happens if artifacts are unearthed? If the result is a no-build order, then you’ve lost the full use of your property.”

Keiser told the councilors that he will set up an exploratory meeting with the Narragansetts to discuss the town’s plans to proceed with Safe Routes’ work, and initiate preliminary talks on tribal concerns about known archeological sites. The issue will be re-visited during the Nov. 15 meeting of the Town Council.

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