2011-12-15 / Front Page

Islanders pack Town Hall to debate future of Fort Getty

Petition signed by 470 islanders asks councilors to delay decisions
BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN

The Town Council this week opened its meeting to hear islanders’ views on the future of Fort Getty. The ensuing debate, which was lengthy, dense and almost entirely civil, included some uncontroversial decisions. But the most important message from the proceedings was that interest in the park has reached an intensity unseen since the highway barn dispute.

Another important message is that the RV campground issue remains contentious. Some people feel the campground should not be changed unless all of its revenue can be replaced. Others argue that Jamestowners should have more access to the park during the summer – with one resident pointing out that the campers aren’t even staying in their RVs during the week.

The audience for the Dec. 15 meeting was standing room only. The council had planned to select “fixed” and “flexible” uses of the park for financial analysis, but council President Mike Schnack patiently allowed everyone who wanted to speak during open forum to have his or her say, with the result that the fixed and flexible part of the agenda didn’t reach a vote for two hours.

Besides selecting Fort Getty uses for analysis by the Landworks Collaborative, the only other decision reached by the council was an acknowledgement that a group of residents had brought forward a Fort Getty petition. Because it wasn’t on the agenda, the petition wasn’t debated, as such. But it was referenced several times by the councilors, including Ellen Win- sor, who said the petition and the turnout was “a superb gift” and “an impressive show of democracy.”

Other councilors were less effusive in their praise, with several of them, such as Mike White, who said, “Many of the things requested by the petition are just exactly what we’re doing.” The assertion will be put to the test next year, as the petitioners watch the council craft the process for its Fort Getty decisions.

The petition is entitled “Fort Getty: Preserving the park as a public park.” It asks the council to, among other things, “Delay its decision on the allocation of Fort Getty land for the RV campground until there is more analysis of, and public participation in, this major step.” It also requests the council to “hold a town meeting to review the possible combination of uses [evaluated by Landworks].”

The petition was introduced by resident Mary Meagher, who chaired the most recent Fort Getty Master Plan Committee. As directed by the council, Meagher presented the foot-high stack of petitions to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser. Returning to the microphone to explain the purpose of the petition drive – which garnered 470 signatures in just under six days – Meagher said that the Fort Getty debate reminded her of the controversy sparked by the crossisland highway proposal in the late 1980s.

Because the 1991-93 council opened up the highway decision process to residents affected by the proposal, the discussions became “invigorated,” said Meagher, who served on that council.

“As a result,” she recalled, “[residents] brought us better information and more ideas…and a lot of hard work led to better decisions.”

Meagher implored the council to remember the lessons from both the cross-island highway and the long-delayed highway barn. “When we hold so tightly to something,” she said, alluding to the status quo at Fort Getty, “we rob ourselves of the possibility of improving… that decision.”

Meagher was followed by Derek Hansen, whose website – FortGet tyChoices.com – has become a forum for those with an interest in the park. Hansen said that the authors of the petition – himself, Meagher, Jemma Craig, Betty Hubbard, Tom Chiginsky, Ken Newman and Elizabeth Delude-Dix – don’t necessarily agree with one another on what would be best for the park, but “we all agree that there needs to be more dialogue” among all interested parties.

Delude-Dix alluded to some of Schnack’s remarks during the Oct. 3 council meeting, when he said that relying on referenda to decide non-financial issues was such a “slippery slope” that “you might as well move to California [which is known for its ballot initiatives].” Schnack had also said that Jamestowners would have an opportunity to effectively vote on Fort Getty uses when they’re asked to decide on a bond to finance infrastructure repairs.

Delude-Dix dismissed the “bond solution,” pointing out that, “By the time you get to the bond issue, it’s too late. The plans have been made. Don’t ask for our input [by virtue of] a bond issue when the ink [on the plans] is already dry.” Delude-Dix also pointed out that she doesn’t have any intention of moving to California.

Craig told the council that she hoped the petition would persuade the councilors to “press the reset button,” adding that it was “exciting to see so many 20- and 25-year-olds who were excited to sign. [Your] decision will affect many generations to come.”

Hubbard echoed the position that “you need to step back and we all need to work out our differences. You don’t need to [decide on Fort Getty uses] immediately. I heard many different points of view [while standing outside] Mc- Quade’s, but many people were delighted to sign simply because they had though the Fort Getty decision was a ‘done deal.’”

White later remarked that the “done deal” assumption amounted to “misinformation.” It was first expressed publicly during the Oct. 3 meeting by resident Richard Ventrone. It has been reinforced by the fixed-use preferences expressed by the councilors, a majority of whom want to “retain” the RV campground, with one councilor saying it “stays [with the] west side reduced.”

Chiginsky told the council that an estimate of Fort Getty revenue provided by Councilor Bill Murphy during a recent PBS radio interview was inaccurate, adding that the validity of such numbers “go to the heart of the [decision] process.” Murphy later explained that he expressed the revenue as a range, which was averaged to an incorrect number – and that “$293,000 is what we’d lose” if the RV campground were eliminated.

(According to data provided by Keiser and Financial Director Tina Collins for the “History of Fort Getty” article published by the Press on Sept. 1, the net revenue from Fort Getty in fiscal year 2010 was $281,300.)

Chiginisky also told the council that a principle goal in the solicitation for a planning consultant – producing “creative ideas as measured by their usefulness to residents” – had yet to be achieved. The May 19 charrette facilitated by Landworks was intended to brainstorm for ideas, but the results of that workshop have been routinely dismissed by most of the councilors because only 111 residents voted on their Fort Getty preferences. During this week’s meeting, Schnack added another layer of discomfort with the workshop.

“The whole thing was surreal,” said Schnack, adding that the participants were asked to “just dream about what they’d like to do [at Fort Getty].”

Newman told the council that, because of the economic debacle, “a lot has changed since 2005,” when the most recent master plan, which proposed an RV relocation at a cost of $3 million to $5 million, was issued. Consequently, “we need to be looking at [Fort Getty uses] with a fresh perspective,” Newman said.

Besides the necessity for fiscal prudence, more people are taking “staycations” instead of traveling, and Newman was implying that Jamestowners should have the opportunity to include a local park as part of their time off.

Winsor later said, “Some Jamestowners have seen their assets diminished in the stock market debacle and the downward pricing of real estate. Others are unemployed or underemployed. Many people in their 20s are having trouble finding work.”

She added, “So it is very important for a full understanding of potential uses for Fort Getty which have been successfully employed – revenue and cost wise, by other communities the size of Jamestown, tempered by our current economic climate.”

But one Jamestowner took issue with any request for additional information in support of potential Fort Getty uses. Resident Paul Robertson said that, “In this town, we have surveys for everything under the sun. And it seems to me, if you ask the same question enough times, you’ll eventually get the answer you’re looking for. And once again, a minority in this town will push and push until they get the answer they want.

“You guys,” Robertson continued in his remarks to the council, “aren’t doing anything haphazardly. Nothing in this town moves quickly. But you don’t need this information [in the petition] saying Fort Getty is a great place. Make an educated decision [reflecting the views] of the majority.”

(Jamestown performed an island wide, Fort Getty-specific survey in 2004; otherwise, the only other survey questions about Fort Getty were asked in the 1999 and 2010 Comprehensive Community Plan surveys, which are performed in support of the state-mandated plans.)

Resident Paul Sprague told the council he was open to any use of the park as long as it kept visitors to the island coming to his ice cream shop. And resident Kevin Carty said, “I don’t know if Mc- Quade’s could survive” without the RV campers’ business. In response to those concerns, Murphy later reiterated his view that that no one has proposed any ideas to replace the revenue and visitor traffic generated by the RV campground. “Maybe Landworks will come up with the idea,” Murphy said.

But ideas have been proposed. In a June 2 Press article, Meagher envisioned the park as a stage for performing arts at one of two sites: either on a deck constructed as part of the Rembijas pavilion if the replacement structure were built at the base of the hill near the original location (which it won’t); or, on a deck constructed as part of the sailing center suggested for the northern end of the peninsula.

During this week’s meeting, moreover, a film location manager, Colin Walsh, said a Hollywood director ultimately chose Portsmouth’s Glen Farm over Fort Getty for an upcoming shoot because the RV campers precluded the planned filming, thereby providing Portsmouth’s economy with “tens of thousands of dollars.”

Additionally, Fort Getty Road resident Kate Petrie urged the council to consider performing arts, including dance and music, as a source of revenue from the park – which, she noted, “is ghostly from Tuesday through Thursday. All you hear is the fluttering flags. There’s no one there because they’ve all returned to their jobs in Cranston, or wherever.”

The list of councilor preferences for Fort Getty uses generally includes restroom improvements, a marine education center, and improved parking and boating access. Winsor’s preferences include “an expansion of open space, alternative energy, and environmental protection.”

In her motion to submit the councilors’ list to Landworks, she added “theater, dance, music, a performing arts facility and a sailing school,” while also adding verbiage asking Landworks to bring forward “options for Fort Getty that communities similar to Jamestown have used successfully, along with the revenue generated and costs incurred, with prepared documents available for our citizens to review, and then the council will define the process, with citizen input.”

It’s unclear when the Landworks analysis will be finished. However, looking ahead, Schnack said that, once a process is defined and decisions are reached, there could be a five-year implementation plan for the options and layout that are ultimately selected. But there’s a long way before the council, and Jamestowners, can contemplate implementation.

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