2011-06-09 / Front Page

Debate heats up over Fort Getty town park

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Friends of Fort Getty met last Saturday at the Jamestown Philomenian Library to share ideas for the replacement of the John C. Remijas Memorial Pavilion, which collapsed during a February snowstorm. But the June 4 gathering, which was attended by 35 people, included energetic debates on many other issues swirling around the future of Jamestown’s only town park.

The Fort Getty group, which is unsanctioned by the town, hopes to gradually assume an advocacy role similar to that of the Friends of the Library. The informal meeting was moderated by Mary Meagher, who is a member of the Town Building and Facilities Committee.

The only Town Council member who attended the meeting was Mike White. Valerie Malloy, who serves on the same committee as Meagher, was the only other committee member in attendance.

In her opening remarks, Meagher noted that a decision on the pavilion’s replacement “will probably be a major focus of the Town Council over the next few months.” She also pointed out that there hasn’t been any decision on the design and amenities – if any – for the structure.

The pavilion is rented out for 20 to 25 events per season at a cost of $300 per rental. Only Jamestown residents are eligible to rent it, although they are allowed to reserve the facility on behalf of non-islanders.

White confirmed that the town’s insurance provider has submitted a preliminary offer to pay $400,000 in compensation for the pavilion’s loss. The amount reflects the cost of constructing an identical replacement to current code, but the debate about its uses and amenities is still going strong.

More than half the group, or 23 people, raised their hands in support of bathrooms for the pavilion. Others disagreed, with one resident saying that shifting the replacement a little further north (which is one of two locations endorsed by the Town Council) would put the facility within easier walking distance of the current campground bathroom.

Referring to various options for the future uses of the replacement structure, one resident said that “the loss of the pavilion is an opportunity” for the town and that “replacing the pavilion at the least cost is the wrong way to go.”

“We don’t want the pavilion to be the officer’s club [at the Newport Navy base],” a resident replied. Another participant said that he was “very enthused” by idea of a dual use for the replacement pavilion, such as adding a masonry terrace for performing arts.

One resident said that adding bathrooms to the pavilion would enhance its revenue potential, but another resident pointed out that bathrooms would be an enclosed structure, which would require a Coastal Resource Management Council permit because both the original and alternative sites lie in a flood plain within 200 feet of coastal waters.

Nevertheless, about a third of the group – 12 people – raised their hands in support of an enclosed, year-round facility, even though it’s unclear if the CRMC would grant a permit for one.

During the recent Fort Getty workshop, about 40 percent of the 111 people who voted on future uses of the park selected an enclosed pavilion as a preference.

During the inevitable discussion on the RV campground, one resident questioned the significance of the votes that were taken at the workshop, arguing that, “Small meetings tend to skew the results.”

White agreed and said that, “111 people is a miniscule minority. We have a representative government and one way to reach a decision on the campers is turning the decision over to the elected representatives. The other way would be a referendum, but referendums are very difficult” because the questions posed to voters can be confusing.

Meagher spoke up in defense of the recent workshop, which she moderated, by saying that she didn’t want to “diminish” the people who are interested enough in an issue to attend a community meeting.

One resident expressed the view that Fort Getty “isn’t ours” during the summer when the RV campers occupy the 105 campsites. A seasonal camper disagreed: “Everyone is welcome there, anytime.”

Another resident said the decision on RV campers should, in fact, go to the town’s voters, but added that the campground “has been there since 1964” and that “losing the campers would mean losing all the revenue” that the campers pay in fees. But former Planning Commission Chairwoman Betty Hubbard said it was difficult to support the assertion that the RV campground “has been this big money maker when you look at the $1 million we are looking at spending on infrastructure, which will have to be repaired, again, in time. People don’t realize the costs of the RV campground.”

Hubbard also said that RV camping was not the only potential source of revenue from Fort Getty, pointing out that a sailing center “would also bring in revenue.”

White attributed the enormity of the infrastructure repairs to town negligence. “The [Newport non-profit group] that proposed a sailing center during the last council wanted us to maintain it, but Jamestown has always been rotten at maintaining stuff. So, we will try to set up a plan for [regular Fort Getty] maintenance in the future.”

A sailing advocate in the group said that “there are ways to provide for a sailing center” and that “there are people out there who want to help.” Meagher pointed out that “we live on an island, and, when I was on the Town Council, there was a lot of sentiment supporting lifetime recreational opportunities, like sailing, for our residents.”

One resident argued against adding any structures. One of them argued that the residents of Fort Getty road “won’t want hundreds of cars driving down their street,” adding that the ideas for buildings such as sailing centers are “just a pie in the sky.”

Alluding to the long-standing amphitheater proposal for the park, Valerie Malloy asked, “Wouldn’t the possibility of having [musical performances] in town allow [a pavilion] to be less formal and more natural?”

“The more formal a pavilion is,” Malloy added, “the more likely people will be to snatch it up.”

While the Friends of Fort Getty group didn’t reach any consensus, White expressed his preference for an initial timeline. “Nothing is off the table,” said White, “which means we will probably need a bigger table. After all our meetings, committees, and workshops, nothing is off the table, and that’s part of the problem. We will decide on the pavilion first, because the insurance company is willing to pay us the money for it, but my goal is making that decision before the next election.”

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