2012-04-26 / Front Page

Council decides to give Fort Getty another committee

The standing-room-only workshop once again revolved around RV camp
BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN

Despite the Town Council’s reluctance to create committees, it looks like they will establish one to address an unyielding controversy: the future of Fort Getty.

The unexpected proposal was one of two twists to emerge in the council’s April 23 work session on the only town-owned waterfront park. Otherwise, the status of Fort Getty remains unchanged from what it was on Jan. 4, 2010 – the day when Town Council President Mike Schnack disbanded the Fort Getty Master Plan Committee.

The three-hour standing-roomonly meeting was dominated by public comments – virtually all of them civil. The purpose of the meeting, said Schnack, was gathering input “to help us decide on next steps.”

After enumerating earlier Fort Getty panels and their work products, Schnack said that when the current council started, nothing had been done to implement recommendations issued over the previous 15 years. An author of the master plan later noted that some of those proposals, such as annual financial set-asides for the park, had indeed been adopted.

But none of the councilors said they were open to recommendations for scaling back the RV campground, as the 2005 master plan and 2006 land-use plan both proposed.

Many residents believe that the park needs more open space to increase public access and allow a greater diversity of uses, a view that was strongly supported by voters at the Fort Getty charrette. But other residents and several council members argued that Fort Getty uses are already diverse.

For example, Councilor Bill Murphy pointed out that the park attracts people for boating, swimming, sailing and fishing. And resident Peter Coble said he rides his Jet Ski at Fort Getty, arguing, “There are lots of uses compatible with the RVs.”

But other residents want the park to be more open and available for uses associated with dry land. Some of those residents are members of the Fort Getty Choices Project, an ad hoc group exploring various approaches to increasing the availability and uses of the park during the summer.

Member Jemma Craig told the council, “The value of open space is intrinsic.” She added, “100 families have exclusive rights to the park. But it’s not a park when they’re there. It’s a motor-home park with cars and trucks and boat trailers. We need to find a way to increase inclusivity at the park instead of giving exclusive rights to 100 families who don’t pay taxes while we pay for their water and electricity.”

Craig urged the council to “embrace change,” and another member of Fort Getty Choices, Mary Meagher, urged to council to be “visionary.”

RVs and boat trailers, Meagher said, have “overwhelmed the park” despite the community’s increasing interest in it since 2005, which is when a Fort Getty committee, which Meagher chaired, wrote the most recent plan. “Who are we trying to serve?” Meagher said. “Twenty people who walk their dogs? Our community? Or the RV families?”

Meagher urged the council “to involve the community” in the discussions on Fort Getty’s future, arguing that the opportunities presented by Fort Getty are unique. “I know of no other town with the opportunities we have available at Fort Getty,” she said.

Murphy said that, as far as he knows, there aren’t any viable opportunities to replace the revenue from RV campers, which is the most frequently raised argument against reductions in the RV campground. He also challenged the revenue and expense assumptions in a PowerPoint presentation from Fort Getty Choices member Derek Hansen, asserting that Hansen underestimated or ignored expenses at the park.

Hansen, whose discussions with the councilors and the public encompassed an hour of the evening, wants a careful consideration of options and compatibilities at the park. He told Murphy that his analysis absolutely breaks out such costs as maintenance payroll expenses in his cost projections for a non-RV park.

But Schnack argued that eliminating the RV campground would lead to a double increase in taxes. First, to replace lost revenues, and again, to pay for maintenance costs. Resident Blake Dickinson said, “People are moving towards austerity and their appetite for anything other than the status quo at Fort Getty is zero.” Resident Sam Patterson echoed Murphy’s concerns, saying, “Why doesn’t [Fort Getty Choices] show the town how to generate income from the park instead of asking for the world?”

One of the many ideas that open-space advocates have offered is the possibility of film production or occasional shoots, which offer a potential windfall – and which was thwarted, at least once, because of the RV campers, said Craig. A second idea with much more traction is musical and theatrical performances.

Murphy said, “Let’s bring forward ideas for events and try them out and we’ll keep what works.” But Hansen maintains that no one – including the contractor hired to perform a financial analysis of Fort Getty uses – has studied the compatibility of various uses with the RV campground, for example, the compatibility of a large audience with the adjoining RV campground. Schnack, however, said that placing a stage at the base of the hill beside the volleyball court would allow for performing arts, if not for dressing rooms.

The revenue projections from the town’s contractor – Landworks Collaborative – was never referenced by the council. But Hansen and several residents questioned the necessity for Fort Getty to be used as a revenue source at all.

Hansen pointed out that Jamestown’s vote to acquire farmland development rights at a cost of $3.5 million was unanimous. And resident George Levesque said that acquiring those rights “was the best thing Jamestown ever did. If you had subdivided the farms the taxes would have gone up.”

Arguments supporting the intrinsic value of open space at Fort Getty are being raised more often in discussions about the park. However, in the night’s second twist, a previously silent group of Fort Getty stakeholders emerged to express their views. The stakeholders were Jamestown residents who want to live at the campground while renting out their homes. Their remarks included the following:

• “Take a good look at [raising seasonal camping fees] to fair market rates before throwing the RV campers under the bus.”

• “Jamestown residents who rent RV camp sites should be charged less.”

• Allowing arts at the park will end up “raising our taxes” to help support their costs.

A number of residents reiterated the argument that the RV campers are major economic drivers for such businesses as McQuade’s Marketplace, but they didn’t offer supporting evidence, nor has the council requested it.

Several residents argued that the town should view the RV campers as “families” and the campground as a “neighborhood” that shouldn’t be broken up to provide open space. One of those residents angrily dismissed the ideas brought forward by open-space advocates with language that was questionable for a community gathering, although he wasn’t admonished for it.

A small sample of final remarks from the councilors includes the following:

• Councilor Bob Bowen said he would support the construction of a “marine education center” on the campground hill, with its first floor providing the Parks and Recreation Department storage space for maintenance equipment.

• Councilor Mike White said he’s met many of the RV campers, adding, “Part of what makes Jamestown such a nice place to live is the people I meet.”

• Murphy said, “The first rule of politics is you’ll always tick some people off.” He said the council should start with small ideas.

• Councilor Ellen Winsor said the town should look for ways to promote off-season uses of the park. She also said it would be ironic to put up “green bling” in the form of an East Passage wind turbine while supporting “dinosaur technology” represented by RVs on the West Passage.

• Schnack said that Fort Getty is empty from Labor Day to Memorial Day, and that “the RV campers don’t bother me,” adding, however, that the campground “does look like a shanty town, sometimes. And that’s partly our fault because we haven’t enforced the rules.”

Consequently, said Schnack, the council will appoint a permanent town committee to work with the rec department, and presumably debate ideas for future uses and infrastructure repairs at the park. He added that the council will also pursue an update to the 2006 landuse plan by contracting landscape architects.

Schnack concluded the meeting by saying, “We’ve had a great discussion, tonight.”

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