2012-04-05 / Front Page

Town Council focuses on Fort Getty plans

Council sets deadline for schools and town to finalize proposed budget
BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN

The Town Council this week set the stage for a group of major decisions to come, spending much of its meeting scheduling dates for budget adoption and the Fort Getty workshop. The council also discussed the status of several issues nearing resolution, such as the property-tax abatement requested by the Jamestown Arts Center, the hand off of repossessed tax lots to the Conanicut Island Land Trust, and the long-standing proposal to allow accessory apartments.

The council met on April 2 and the councilors set two important dates: a Fort Getty workshop on April 23, and a special meeting to vote on the final combined town and school budget on May 1 – after which there will be a Buildings and Facilities Committee work session.

The most salient of the issue updates involved Fort Getty, with the council learning that construction plans for the Rembijas Pavilion are on a fast track. The council also accepted a report from the Fort Getty Choices Committee.

The report dissects the Fort Getty financial data submitted to the council on March 5 by Landworks Collaborative. The analysis was presented to the council by Tom Chiginsky, who said, “We see Fort Getty as a $20 million asset, not a $250,000 revenue stream.”

Chiginsky added that the report reflects the group’s commitment “to the 476 residents who signed our petition in 96 hours.” The petition requested additional deliberations and greater transparency from the Town Council concerning Fort Getty decisions.

Besides providing financial breakouts, the report articulates additional questions that must be answered before the future uses of Fort Getty can be thoughtfully decided. For example, says the report, “What is the appropriate breakdown of revenues and expenses between current RV and non- RV uses? If we’re going to talk about reducing or eliminating the RVs, we have to have a handle on this and the Landworks analysis doesn’t get at it directly.”

Referring to the $1 million in infrastructure upgrades that may be proposed for the RV campground – and funded by a 20-year bond issue – the report asks: “What is the useful life of the various improvements?”

Referring to the possibility of adding Fort Getty uses while keeping the RV campground, the report asks, “What uses are compatible and incompatible with one another?” And, “Would an event center generate the same amount of event revenue as one without the RV campers?”

The answers to some of the questions, the report suggests, will require discussions with the Parks and Recreation Department while other questions “indicate the need for professional perspectives on what uses are compatible.”

Presumably, the report will be discussed at the Fort Getty workshop later this month. During the council meeting, however, the only substantial discussion involving the park was the status of pavilion construction, which has encountered a glitch involving various assemblies for the structure.

The problem arose, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser told the council, because “the shop drawings had to go through several iterations to meet the specifications set by the architect. But the contractor is mobilizing [this week], and he says he will have the entire foundation and columns in place for the roof deck and trusses when they arrive.”

So far there are two events booked for the pavilion in May. One is the Payton’s Pace 5K Walk & Run, which will start and end at the pavilion. The second is a family reunion. Even if the metal roof has not been installed by then, there will at least be a roof deck to keep out any weather, Keiser said.

Speaking of the metal roof, there was a lengthy debate about its color at the end of the meeting. The council had originally chosen “patina green,” but some of the councilors are having second thoughts about such a large expanse of that particular color. While some of the councilors were inclined to stay with the earlier selection, Council President Mike Schnack decided to hold off because “we don’t want to put up something we’ll be ashamed of.”

There has also been a delay involving another issue: accessory apartments, also known as in-law apartments. During the Feb. 13 meeting, Councilor Bill Murphy asked the town solicitor to draft an amendment to the zoning ordinance providing for in-law apartments while allowing the homeowners to keep their properties classified as single family.

Although the draft amendment was expected last month, the Planning Commission has held off offering a recommendation to the council because, said Schnack, the panel was waiting to see what the updated Jamestown Community Comprehensive Plan would have to say about accessory apartments. But Schnack said the amendment would be returned to the commission, which will be asked to provide a recommendation in time for the council’s May 16 meeting.

A new housing issue brought before the council was detailed in a letter from Planning Commission Chairman Michael Swistak, who said resident Raymond Ianetta is raising concerns about “his negative experience connected to shortterm rental activity on a neighboring property.”

Ianetta says that a neighboring house had been rented out for a wedding celebration which turned raucous, and that “abusive renting of private homes for temporary occupancy runs counter to” the preservation of rural values specified by the comprehensive plan.

In his letter to the council, Swistak pointed out that “a number of communities in Rhode Island have reviewed the impacts of short-term rentals,” and that “some have instituted zoning regulations in various forms as a result.”

Consequently, Swistak wrote, the council should consider asking the commission to formally explore the topic. But Murphy was wary of referring the issue to the panel immediately. “We should ask the Police Department if there’s any history of complaints. We shouldn’t be thinking about a change to the zoning ordinance because of one person who had a problem with a neighbor.”

Another unique real estate issue discussed by the council dates back to last fall: a request by the Jamestown Arts Center for a 70 percent property-tax abatement.

The issue is unique because, as Keiser pointed out, Jamestown is not providing any other nonprofit groups with abatements, so the center would be the first. JAC treasurer Anne Livingston requested the abatement last October, expressing the view that a tax reduction was justified because of the group’s nonprofit status.

Since then, major renovations to the center’s property ensure that its assessed value and taxes will increase substantially, Keiser said, informing the council that he had asked the JAC to write a letter explaining the scope of the benefits provided to the town by the group. Now that the letter has been received, the abatement request will be brought back for a vote at the council’s first or second meeting in May.

In her March 26 letter, Livingston wrote that the arts center “offers film screenings and art classes for all ages. The board of directors believes there should be a public contribution to the arts center because of its substantial value to the town, just as there is to the library and Beavertail Lighthouse.”

Yet another real-estate issue that will likely come up for resolution in May is the pending transfer to the Conanicut Island Land Trust of 100 tax-sale lots in the Shores. Currently, Town Planner Lisa Bryer and Conservation Commission Chairwoman Carol Trocki are working out the details of the management plan that the trust will be required to implement.

Although Murphy pointed out that the hand off has been on the table since last July, and warned that “it might never get done” if it’s delayed any longer, Trocki advised patience, telling the council that the management plan “is a work in progress,” and that “it would be great if you could wait a little longer.”

Keiser said the council could expect to see the management plan at the first regular meeting in May, which will be held on May 7.

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