2011-09-08 / Front Page

Support for Fort Getty referendum emerges

BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN

Although the Town Council this week delayed its first-cut decision on the future uses of Fort Getty, many residents attending an earlier work session expressed support for a different path forward: placing the final decision on the park’s dominant use – the RV campground – in the hands of the island’s voters.

The council meeting and work session were held on Sept. 6. The 90-minute work session was particularly well attended by Jamestown residents, who engaged in assertive but respectful exchanges with the councilors.

The council had planned to select a group of Fort Getty uses for economic analysis by Landworks Collaborative, which facilitated the Fort Getty charrette on May 19. However, because Councilor Mike White was unable to attend this week’s work session, “We need to have another work session to hear Mike’s input and reach a consensus,” said Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, suggesting that the next Fort Getty work session could be held just before the first or second council meeting in October.

Confident that the October work session will produce a vote on the uses to submit for Landworks’ analysis, Council President Mike Schnack said, “We are moving forward on this.” As part of that forward motion, the councilors used this week’s work session to discuss their preferences for “fixed” and “flexible” uses of the park. Most of those discussions touched on, or directly addressed, the future of the RV campground.

The most recent of Jamestown’s Fort Getty Master Plans proposed a reduction in the number of RV campsites (which is currently 104). During the work session, one councilor – Ellen Winsor – expressed unqualified support for the park’s tent camping but withheld support for the RV campground “because of its costs” to the town. Schnack expressed support for shifting the campground away from the hilltop and implied some support for reducing the number of camp sites.

Referring to the sprawl of vehicles in and around the Fort Getty hill, Schnack said, “I don’t want our residents excluded from the park, but it feels like they are because of all the cars and boats all over the place. We have failed to manage that park.”

Councilor Bob Bowen supported shifting the campsites eastward without reducing their number. Councilor Bill Murphy, while supporting a reconfiguration of the RV campground for greater “efficiency,” didn’t express his opinion on proposals to reduce its size.

During the public comment period of the work session, resident Richard Ventrone pointed out that Landworks had prefaced the charrette by advising the town to decide on the RV campground before reaching any other park decisions.

“Listening to three of the councilors, it looks like [keeping the RV campground] is a done deal,” said Ventrone. “Mr. Bowen has said that the 111 people who voted [on their preferred Fort Getty uses] at the charrette ‘don’t count,’ but I feel passionately about that piece of land, and I don’t want trailers there. I ask that you put this issue to a referendum.”

The request sparked a burst of applause from the public but not a response from the council. However, Ventrone later asked the councilors, “Would you consider a referendum?” Schnack replied, “I don’t know.” Ventrone then asked, “When will you know?” Schnack replied, “I don’t know.”

Ventrone, however, was not alone in requesting a referendum. During her scheduled comments to the council during its regular meeting, Mary Meagher, who chaired the most recent Fort Getty Master Plan Committee – and who supports a 50 percent or even greater reduction in the number of RV campsites – said she isn’t “usually in favor of referenda, but I recommend that you put [the RV campground question] out for public response.”

During the work session, resident Chris Powell advised the council to ask Landworks to run the numbers on two scenarios: the economics of the park with, and without, the RV campground. “And then,” added Powell, “present [the scenarios] to the voters.”

Another resident who expressed support for a referendum was Ken Newman, who pointed out, “There wouldn’t be any question about the results, as there was about the charrette.”

Although “passive recreation and open space” emerged as the mostpreferred use among the 111 residents who voted at the charrette, the number of participating voters has been dismissed, by some, as “unrepresentative.”

In her exchange with Schnack, resident Elizabeth Delude-Dix said she assumed that the charrette results held the answer to the RV campground question that Landworks advised the town to address upfront. Schnack replied that the question “is not a new issue,” prompting Delude- Dix to ask, “Then why did we have the charrette?”

Schnack replied that the purpose of the charrette “was not clearly delineated for [Landworks], so we went back to ‘square one.’” Delude- Dix argued, however, that the charrette results “contradict what the council wants to do [by maintaining the RV status quo].”

“That’s not necessarily true,” Schnack replied, noting that “Landworks didn’t provide any examples of improved campgrounds” in its presentation to the charrette, and claiming that Landworks “seemed to want the campground out. The process was slanted.”

In contrast to the charrette results, which tallied at least one vote for 30 different uses, here are a few of the “wish list” elements singled out by the councilors during the work session:

• A sailing school, which was supported by Murphy, Winsor and Bowen, although Bowen said the facility should have a broader “marine education” focus, with sailing classes being one aspect of the education. Schnack said he wasn’t “totally sold” on the idea of a facility, adding that he would prefer to set up a tent on the park’s basketball court for marine-related functions.

• Alternative energy was mentioned by Murphy, who said that he would support a small wind turbine to serve the park, and Bowen, who supports a solar hot-water system for park facilities. Winsor suggested that the former Army bunkers could be used for alternative-energy purposes.

• Bathroom improvements were mentioned frequently, although there isn’t any consensus on whether the bathrooms should be year-round or seasonal facilities, or whether the main bathroom facility in the RV campground should be improved or replaced.

• Environmental protection for fragile areas of the park, such as the eelgrass beds, was singled out by Winsor, who pointed out that the Conservation Commission has advised the council to keep “conservation values” in the forefront of its Fort Getty decisions. (The Sept. 1 recommendations were accepted during the regular council meeting.) Winsor also expressed support for the “open space” use of the park.

• Additional parking space came up fairly often, with Murphy suggesting a parking area for visitors near the gatehouse, which would allow residents to park and walk the Fort Getty trails without the necessity of buying a sticker for their vehicles.

• Picnic and cookout “shelters” around the park were proposed by Bowen, whose idea drew a favorable response from the other councilors.

Although the revenue from the RV campground wasn’t discussed in any detail, all of the councilors, except Winsor, expressed the view that the revenue is generally necessary, and that it would help fund upgrades to the park. Winsor said that there are other uses, like theatrical performances, which could offset the loss of income from the RV campers. Resident Betty Hubbard agreed.

“Please, please use your consultants to look at sources of revenue other than the RV campground,” said Hubbard, who served on the most recent Master Plan Committee. “In 2009, just before the committee was disbanded, we had a discussion about the campground’s costs and the way the discussion went was: It doesn’t make any sense. The money is illusory because it’s used for other things in town. Don’t limit your economic evaluation [of income-producing uses] to just the RV campground.”

Town Planner Lisa Bryer told the councilors that they should not discount the charrette results because their indication of a strong preference for open space and passive recreation is borne out by other survey results. For example, Bryer said, “The responses to our 2010 survey for the comprehensive plan update were strongly supportive of open space at Fort Getty. You ask the question and you get the answer.”

In her comments during the regular council meeting, Meagher commended the council on its work session and noted its “spirited discussions,” adding, “I can only imagine how many people would have turned out if [the work session] had been publicized.” She also said, “I am here to encourage you to increase public access to waterdependent uses” while proceeding “very carefully with the eastern side of the park, which I have come to regard as very, very sensitive.”

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