2011-07-14 / Front Page

Council, contractors quarrel over Fort Getty planning

By Phil Zahodiakin

Anyone expecting progress in the Fort Getty planning process was probably disappointed by the outcome of this week’s Town Council workshop on the future of Jamestown’s only park.

The meeting was intended to examine the latest data on potential park uses to help the councilors select a group of options for economic analysis. But the councilors didn’t engage in any systematic review – and won’t until the options are placed into categories suggested by a planning expert.

The July 11 workshop was attended by a moderately large audience, which included all of the Planning Commission members. Besides the councilors, the other participants at the workshop table were Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, Town Planner Lisa Bryer, and principals from Landworks Collaborative, a planning and architectural firm based in Worcester, Mass.

Landworks facilitated the recent Fort Getty charrette, which was held to elicit resident ideas for future uses of the park. As part of its $10,000 contract, Landworks is also responsible for performing economic analyses of some, if not all, of the ideas.

During the Town Council meeting on June 20 – a month after the May 19 charrette – Councilor Bob Bowen said, “Landworks has the data collected from the mini-charrette and I want to make sure that what we get back from Landworks is information on all of the different options that were considered before they started doing an economic analysis of all those options.”

It was obvious from the outset of this week’s workshop that, for whatever reason, Landworks and the council weren’t on the same page. Nevertheless, despite an awkward start, there were brief discussions on several of the uses proposed for the park and the lengthy workshop ended with a consensus on the council’s next step.

The meeting started with a hostile response to Landworks’ opening presentation of “bubble” drawings depicting the potential locations of various uses within the park. Councilor

Bill Murphy was outraged that the drawings included a wedding and banquet facility, asking the Landworks principals, “How many millions of dollars are you talking about? Why did you put up final designs without asking for our input? I’m shocked.”

Bowen raised a concern that Landworks had used a significant portion of its funding on the “bubble” drawings, but Landworks President Bob Mulcahy said the diagrams were only intended to demonstrate, among other things, the flexibility of the park to accommodate different uses. Landworks principal Matthew Mrva said the diagrams should be viewed as summaries of charrette results, adding, “Lisa [Bryer] made it clear to us not to come here with a final plan, and these [diagrams] are not designs.”

But the value of the charrette was repeatedly called into question. From the audience, Planning Commission member Mike Smith remarked that the charrette, which drew 124 residents and one seasonal camper, was “a waste of time” because, in Smith’s opinion, a vote by 111 residents wasn’t meaningful.

Pointing out that no one at the charrette voted for “disabled access,” council President Mike Schanck said, “We will make a decision based on the best interests of the community, not on the wishes of 100 people.”

Charrette voters selected “Open Space and Passive Recreation” as their leading preference for the future use of the park. Schnack pointed out that previous surveys have indicated that a consistent percentage of residents support the RV campground, which occupies most of the park during the summer months, just as it is. The three most recent sets of survey results on the RV campground date from:

• 2004, when 40 percent of respondents said they wanted to keep the RV campground as it was; 30 percent wanted to eliminate it; 19 percent wanted to reduce its size; and 11 percent weren’t sure what they wanted to do with it.

• 2010, when 42 percent of respondents said they wanted to keep the RV campground as it was; 37 percent wanted to eliminate it; and 21 percent wanted to reduce its size.

• 2011, when 14 percent of respondents said they wanted to keep the RV campground as it was; 57 percent said they wanted to eliminate it; and 29 percent said they wanted to reduce its size.

According to the request for qualifications that the town used to solicit a charrette facilitator, Jamestown wanted the selected contractor to base its subsequent report and designs on the data gathered from the charrette – not from the earlier survey results. Mulcahy said he had been impressed by the “creativity, passion and intelligence” expressed at the charrette.

Although the 2004 and 2010 surveys indicated that a consistent percentage of Jamestown residents want the RV campground to remain unchanged, resident Mary Meagher, who chairs the Friends of Fort Getty, said “it’s interesting that 67 percent [of charrette voters] said they wanted to eliminate the RV campground. The sentiment [on the RV campground’s future] is changing.”

Councilor Ellen Winsor observed that “the charrette results are the most contemporary data we have and we shouldn’t dismiss the results simply because of the number of people who voted.” And Bryer, who defended the charrette as “tremendously successful,” pointed out that “125 people coming to a Jamestown meeting is a great turnout.” Bryer also observed that the charrette’s voting results “are just another form of data – a valid form of data.”

Resident Gloria Dahl said she went to the charrette thinking, “I want to keep the campground. But I left thinking, ‘I want to eliminate the campground.’ And tonight, after seeing [one of the Landworks diagrams], I think what people are saying when they say, ‘We want our park,’ what they’re saying is, ‘We want access to the park for ourselves in the summer’ – to see the water from the western side of the park, which is something we cannot do so freely, now.”

Despite the charrette results, several participants and audience members argued that eliminating the RV campground would kill a “cash cow.” But Meagher noted that the gross revenue from seasonal campers is offset by the annual $50,000 set-aside for the Fort Getty Capital Reserve Fund – an appropriation that was increased to $100,000 this year – and that net income from the RV campground actually ranges from $250,000 to $300,000.

Referring to the set-asides for the reserve fund, whose balance stands at $347,000, Keiser said the appropriations reflect a “significant commitment by the council to put some of the Fort Getty revenue into a fund so that we can realistically consider implementing some changes to the park, based upon the master plan process, but I think that, given the magnitude of some of the costs, it will take time some to generate the level of income we will need, absent some outside source of funding.”

Smith suggested that the rental rates for RV campground sites “ought to be adjusted” as way to increase the funding for park projects. He also said, “Some of the uses on the [charrette] list are mutually exclusive, like open space and a banquet facility. You should see what’s mutually supportive.”

One potential source of park revenue that wouldn’t exclude other uses is a sailing center, which was the second most popular option among charrette voters. The council recently agreed to allow the Conanicut Island Sailing Foundation to run its sailing program at the park for the rest of the summer, and CISF executive director Meg Myles told the participants in this week’s workshop that the foundation “wants to include anything water-related” in the programs offered by a future marine-education facility based at Fort Getty.

Mulcahy said that “after a 10- year process,” a marine-education facility has been built in Duxbury, Mass., and that “they are making money.” Bryer said that Duxbury, which has a population of 15,000, “has put 2,200 kids through the sailing programs without any advertising, and they have aquaculture under the docks. They have parking for 150 cars on a site that’s only 2.5 acres – and they have a multipurpose room that they rent out for various uses.”

The discussions on a sailing center and all the other uses proposed for the park will be held on a date to be determined by the council at its July 18 meeting. Mulcachy advised the councilors to divide all of the potential park elements into “fixed and flexible [uses]. You can’t do anything until you figure that out, and then you need to have a design session. Then, we could draw in one evening a diagram that everyone is comfortable with.”

Also planned for the upcoming meeting on Monday, July 18, the council will discuss the architectural renderings of ideas for the structure that the town will build to replace the John C. Rembijas pavilion that collapsed during a February snowstorm.

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