2011-12-08 / Front Page

Fort Getty debate intensifies leading up to pivotal meeting

BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN

Questions and concerns about the purpose of an upcoming Fort Getty work session sparked plenty of heat – if not much light – during this week’s Town Council meeting. The discord was driven by fears that the council plans to use the work session to permanently allocate most of the land at Jamestown’s only town park to the RV campground, although a number of councilors denied that this was their intent.

The council, which met on Dec. 5, opened up its meeting for a Fort Getty debate during the public forum. The work session will be held as part of a special meeting scheduled for Monday, Dec. 12.

The meeting is special because the councilors will devote a portion of the evening to votes on various agenda items. Otherwise, the meeting will be dominated by a work session with Landworks Collaborative, the Worcester, Mass.-based planning firm retained by the town to evaluate the economic viability of potential Fort Getty uses.

Landworks’ initial assignment was facilitating the May 19 char- rette on resident preferences for Fort Getty uses. The 111 residents eligible to vote selected “open space and passive recreation” as their leading preference from the 42 options identified during breakout sessions. A sailing center came in second, followed by yearround restrooms.

Resident Mary Meagher, who chaired the most recent Fort Getty Master Plan Committee, told the council that Landworks “has your list of [preferences for] fixed and flexible uses” of the park, and asked the councilors to clarify the purpose of the work session.

Council President Mike Schnack said the work session would verify that Landworks had the list. Councilor Bob Bowen noted that the list was unofficial because it didn’t emerge from a formal voting process, implying that the work session would enable the parties to ensure that they were all on the same page.

But Town Planner Lisa Bryer affirmed that “Landworks has the list and they are ready and willing to use the list they have without a vote and start preparing economic analyses. I’m not saying [the work session] is unnecessary, but they’ll be coming back to us with a bunch of numbers, not a map.”

Resident Ken Newman wanted to know if any of the resident preferences selected at the charrette would be in play, asking “whether Landworks is charged with a full analysis of alternative revenue sources [in a scenario where] the RV campground was totally eliminated. It sounds like [the work session] could be an irrevocable vote [to keep all or most of the RV campground] without any economic analysis of total removal.”

Newman was alluding to a concern raised previously by Meagher, namely, that the council might serve as a “landscape architect” by allocating a percentage of Fort Getty land for RV campers and present that allocation as a final decision for Landworks’ analysis. The possibility was broached at the previous council meeting by Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, who reiterated his view during this week’s meeting.

“From a policy and decision perspective,” Keiser said, “under the Town Charter, [the council] has the authority to determine how park space is used.”

However, referring to the charrette results, Keiser observed that the preference for open space and public access to that space “means shrinking the [RV campground].” Keiser also said, “As a governmental member of this community, the council feels that the RV campground should be reduced in size, but there hasn’t been any discussion of what ‘reduction’ means.”

Schnack said that “the Monday meeting will give Landworks clearer direction, but not necessarily a specific [RV campground] allocation. We’re not going to sit here and design a park. That was done in the [previous master plan], which was accepted by a previous council, and we are now taking action on that plan.”

Bowen noted that the council will take action on the “economically acceptable pieces of that plan,” adding that “Landworks will be asked to look at various sizes [for the RV campground].”

But Meagher argued that there shouldn’t be any serious discussion of campground sizes, much less a campground allocation, until the council is provided with the financial analyses of various use scenarios. “To do any land allocation before the analysis would be putting the cart before the horse,” Meagher said. “It would be quite premature and inappropriate.”

“It’s not a cart before the horse,” Schnack replied, alluding to the infrastructure repairs that Fort Getty requires, “because the [fiscal year 2012-13] budget is coming up and [a consensus on the RV campground] will add more clarity to that discussion. Right now there’s too much confusion.”

The most frequently repeated argument in support of the RV campground is its income generation, which was $280,000 in fiscal year 2010-11. A related argument, which was mentioned in a public comment during this week’s meeting, is that the Fort Getty revenue supports the Parks and Recreation Department, which would require town funding to remain in operation, a resident warned, if Fort Getty revenue disappears. (In fact, none of the Fort Getty revenue directly funds the rec department because all of the park fees are deposited in the general fund.)

But that doesn’t mean the town shouldn’t look for ways to increase financial returns from its current and potentially future Fort Getty investments, resident Derek Hansen told the council. One way to increase returns, he said, would be “moving away from seasonal sites to short-term stays [because] on a per-day basis campgrounds charge more for short-term stays.” Hansen, who reiterated his previous argument for analyses of “many different scenarios” and timely public access to those analyses, also urged the council to consider a major increase in the rate paid by the seasonal RV campers, which is $3,700 per season.

Keiser noted that, according to Middletown data provided to rec department staff, the seasonal rate at Second Beach is comparable to the Fort Getty rate, which “puts us near the top end” of seasonal RV camping rates. But Meagher had brought along a printout of the Second Beach fees, which include a $4,762 rate for seasonal RV camping – or $1,000 more than the Jamestown rate. (Both sites are waterfront areas, but the Second Beach campground is basically an asphalt parking lot where the RV campers are said to be packed together much more tightly than they are at Fort Getty.)

Whether or not the Jamestown rate is aligned with comparable RV campgrounds, the council should “consider the options to replace the revenue from the Fort Getty campground,” Newman said. “On Monday, the Town Council could move to [vote on] the fixed options, and a lot of people want to know if this is an inexorable thing or if it’s open to wider discussion.”

“You can suggest [options],” Schnack assured Newman.

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