2011-12-29 / News

Conservation panel focused this year on Fort Getty, Mackerel Cove


Backlash against a popular event, the New Year’s Day Penguin Plunge at Mackerel Cove, embroiled the commissioners in controversy as 2011 began.

The annual teeth-chattering jump, sponsored by Special Olympics Rhode Island, had been a staple for 35 years, but the size of the 2011 crowd, estimated at more than 2,000, and the incidence of public drinking, irked several residents concerned about the impact on the beach.

One islander, Donna Chellis, told the commissioners at their January meeting that Mackerel Cove is a “fragile area.” Chellis said she had witnessed “hordes of people where they shouldn’t have been” standing, particularly on the dune which had been replanted with grasses to protect it from erosion. The lack of trash cans, portable toilets and police for crowd control also came up during the hour-long discussion, which ended with a decision to send a letter to Bruce Keiser, the town administrator, and the Town Council about the environmental problems linked to the Penguin Plunge.

In November, the Special Olympics cited their own concerns about insurance and safety for the Penguin Plunge and announced the event would be moved to Narragansett.

Continuing with Mackerel Cove, the restoration of the beach came up at the December meeting. Commissioner Patrick Driscoll told the panel the beach has come back significantly over the last 10 years from a state that had not been “usable,” as many residents told him. But it’s still a narrow beach, he said. Driscoll showed the commissioners a map of the beach and pointed out possible sections where the parking could be sacrifi ced to redirect the water runoff and allow the dune to re-establish itself. Driscoll said Mike Gray, public works director, suggested changing the parking configuration to put cars along the road shoulder. He estimated the loss would amount to 10 parking spaces. The panel agreed to schedule a field trip in January to assess the situation.

Mackerel Cove was only one natural resource on the panel’s 2011 agenda. Fort Getty became another prime concern.

As the town-wide debate over future uses of the island’s only town-owned park heated up, the Conservation Commission at its August meeting agreed to make a formal recommendation, which would inform the Town Council about “sensitive resources” at the park and advocate for their protection.

One issue at the heart of the debate is the future of the RV campground at Fort Getty. Councilors have indicated they are leaning toward keeping the campground because the fees raise revenues for the community, but some residents believe the campers are taking over space that should be a recreation area for islanders.

Chairwoman Carol Trocki urged the commissioners to focus on “conservation values” and avoid a debate about possible uses. (The Town Council’s consultant, Landworks Collaborative, had suggested a list of uses based on residents’ opinions.)

“I want to see us reiterating the importance of the fragile resources at the park,” she said, “to minimize the impacts on those resources.”

The conservation commissioners discussed some issues surrounding the RV campground but opted not to claim the campground use was inconsistent with the zoning.

The park is also home to a fishing dock and a boat ramp. (A tent has temporarily replaced the pavilion, which was destroyed in a winter storm, until the structure can be rebuilt.)

“Our focus,” Trocki said, “has to be balancing the non-developed resources like the eelgrass beds and coastal buffers with the developed resources.”

The waters off Fort Getty also became an issue later in 2011. The Coastal Resources Management Council had designated the waters by the boat ramp and pier as Type 1, the most environmentally sensitive, because they abut Audubon Society land and a federally protected salt marsh. But Town Councilor Bob Bowen suggested changing the official designation from Type 1 to Type 5 to allow the town to rebuild the boat ramp and pier in the event of damage from a hurricane or other event. Technically, the ramp and pier are not allowed uses in Type 1 waters, he noted. Although these structures have been grandfathered at Fort Getty, the CRMC could still deny a request to repair or replace them. Bowen initially approached the Harbor Commission with the idea, but Maureen Coleman, the conservation panel’s liaison to the Harbor Commission, argued against the proposal. Bowen later said he mistakenly suggested Type 5 but meant Type 3. At a work session in December, the conservation commissioners agreed to sound out the CRMC about future repairs to the dock and ramp but remained cool to a bid to downgrade the official designation from Type 1.

Also related to conservation waters, the panel achieved success as Coleman persuaded the harbor commissioners to drop buoys to mark off environmentally sensitive areas and alert boaters not to drop anchor there. Earlier the two panels had agreed on the delineation of conservation zones in the new Harbor Management Ordinance.

Another battle started over Jamestown Shores where the Town Council had appeared poised to deliver a conservation easement to the Conanicut Island Land Trust to protect about 400 acres of condemned land – known collectively as the “tax lots” – near Head’s Beach. Over the summer, the plan stalled because no management plan was provided. In September, the impasse appeared to be headed for a resolution as the commissioners and Town Planner Lisa Bryer agreed to work out a management plan for the tax lots.

In October, Trocki and former Conservation Commission Chairman Chris Powell led a tour of all the island’s conservation land, including conservation easements and town-controlled open space land. Maintaining these properties was one of the goals Trocki set for 2011 as she took over as chairwoman after serving six years as a commissioner.

Her other priorities were land acquisition and “creating and managing public access to appropriate open spaces.”

She also announced she would continue a 2010 major initiative to promote conservation develop- ment, which would require developers to protect natural resources.

The Conservation Commission in August raised the conservation development issue when it weighed in on the revised community plan. The Planning Commission, however, was divided about the benefits – conservation development would more clearly define guidelines for developers, Town Planner Lisa Bryer said, but might also increase their costs, planning commissioners observed. Besides the conservation development issue, the conservation commissioners also gave the planning commissioners a list of 11 items that should be included in the new community plan. The conservation commissioners wanted, for example, more attention paid to protecting water quality, a better stewardship plan for conservation properties, and an updated inventory of conservation land and other “protected areas”.

Finally, the Conservation Commission also took steps to enforce wetland regulations. Two longstanding matters, involving unauthorized construction of boat ramps near Beavertail, are still pending, but a third dispute appears to have been settled. In December, the CRMC struck a deal with Jamestown Vineyards to restore property at 260 Beavertail Road where a pond was created by using a stone wall to dam a stream. Trocki attended the CRMC meeting, which gave the property owners, PBH Realty, until June 1 to correct the six freshwater violations.

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