2011-07-21 / Front Page

Council plans two Fort Getty workshops

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Town Council took a stab at Fort Getty planning during its July 18 meeting and, like the workshop held a week before the council meeting, the discussions started off with confusion about a path forward.

Ultimately, the council reached a consensus on an initial planning sequence, but a resident raised an issue, which has not figured into any of the councilors’ deliberations on the island’s only municipal park.

The council also reached the point of transferring repossessed properties to the Conanicut Island Land Trust, but pulled back because of a stewardship question that the councilors want answered. But the question raised by the pending conservation easement is trivial in comparison to the Fort Getty decisions that the council seems determined to make by the end of the summer.

The first of these decisions will involve separating the existing and potential uses of the park into “fixed” and “flexible” uses, as suggested by Landworks Collaborative – the planning firm which was hired to facilitate the Fort Getty charrette, perform economic analyses, and prepare drawings of potential layouts.

The second of the decisions will involve selecting a final location for the replacement pavilion, then picking a design for the replacement from the six proposals submitted to the town.

Although the pavilion decisions, like any discussion about Fort Getty, will spark debate, classifying Fort Getty uses into fixed and flexible will shine a spotlight on the most controversial topic of all: the future of the RV campground. That’s because a council decision to classify the RV campground as a fixed use could be interpreted to mean that the number of RVs occupying the park during the summer will be set in stone.

In her public comments on the pending decisions, resident Susan Little asked the council why the people of Jamestown shouldn’t be entrusted to decide the future of the RV campground in a referendum. Little said she was raising the question because of her current participation in the reconstituted Charter Review Commitee.

During that panel’s discussions, “We learned that there’s a petition process [to revise or create] ordinances, but there isn’t a petition process [to revise] the Town Charter,” Little said, implying that there are areas of town governance where residents don’t have as much of a say as they should. She added that several councilors have questioned the validity of voting results from the Fort Getty charrette because “only” 111 residents voted on ideas for park uses.

Little, who also serves on the Planning Commission, pointed out that previous surveys have yielded conflicting results on eliminating or reducing the RV campground. The survey respondents, she said, amounted to roughly 9 percent of the island’s population – far more than the voting sample from the charrette – but Little questioned the adequacy of the “checks and balances” used to ensure that only Jamestown residents filled out the newspaper inserts used for the previous surveys.

“So,” Little said, “if you want to hear the opinions of the people – 1,000 people instead of 111 – why not put the question on the ballot? The campground decision is pivotal for planning.”

Councilors don’t necessarily respond to public comments, and, in the case of Little’s comments, they did not respond at all, turning immediately to the question of planning steps. The first of those steps will be a workshop whose purpose took some time to sort out.

“I thought we were supposed to stop work-shopping for a second or two and make a decision on the constants,” said Councilor Mike White. “I was under the impression that we’d have a vote on the constants [in a council meeting].” Councilor Bill Murphy said, “I thought we would get a consensus at the next workshop.”

“We can’t do that at the workshop [because workshops aren’t venues for council voting],” said Councilor Bob Bowen, who was serving as Town Council president in the absence of Councilor Mike Schnack.

Councilor Ellen Winsor said, “We’re at the start of the planning process and I feel strongly that we’ll leap forward after the next workshop. Deciding now [on fixed and flexible uses] will preempt both the process and a more fulfilling outcome for the town and the park.” Town Administrator Bruce Keiser helped break the impasse by suggesting that the council hold a special meeting after a workshop to make the decisions on fixed and flexible uses.

“There are two distinct issues regarding Fort Getty,” Keiser said. “There’s a short-term decision on the design and location of the pavilion. The second issue – the Landworks piece – is: How do we go about refining the council’s views?”

Keiser also referenced public comments from resident Mary Meagher, who said that pavilion selection would benefit from the designers’ input. Meagher, who chaired the town’s Fort Getty Master Plan Committee, pointed out that, “You might look at the designs and say, ‘We’d like to do this or that.’ It’s an ongoing process, and I assure you that there will be an end to it. But the designers should be included in your conversations.”

Keiser said the idea to include the designers in the selection discussion was well taken, and the council decided to proceed with not one but two workshops: one on pavilion selection, with the designers in attendance, and one on Fort Getty uses, with Landworks representatives in attendance. This phase of the planning process will end, as Keiser suggested, with a special council meeting for the purpose of holding votes on both planning steps.

The other “real estate” issue on the table during the council meeting involved a land trust proposal for the transfer of repossessed town properties into conservation easements administered by the trust. The town acquired the properties in 2009, with almost all of the 100 lots being in the Jamestown Shores, after foreclosing on them because of unpaid tax judgments. All of the development rights to the properties would be held by the trust under the proposed transfer.

One question about the proposal transfer was raised by shores resident Sav Rebecchi, who asked if the town would retain the right to perform groundwater monitoring if there were any suspicions about contamination from a particular lot. Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero assured Rebecchi that there would be no prohibition against environmental surveys or monitoring at the lots once they’re transferred to the trust.

But there wasn’t any clear answer to the question of what, if any, stewardship role would be played by the town’s Conservation Commission. Said White, “We’re handing over stewardship of the land to the trust, but how active a role will [the town] have? Does the land trust work through the Conservation Commission or does it work through the Shores Association?” Murphy, however, warned against “creating a monster where we have too many players and the land trust says, ‘What do you need us for?’”

The council decided to put the stewardship question on the agenda for a future meeting, by which time Ruggiero will have finished his review of the trust’s proposal.

Return to top