Conservation panel worried about coastal buffer vegetation
Jamestowners lost more than “a mile” of coastal buffer vegetation during the past year, due to infractions by three waterfront homeowners and one state agency, Conservation Commissioner Michael Brown said.
Faced with evidence that the scofflaws are gaining momentum, the commissioners said at their Aug. 16 meeting they are going to confront the biggest player: the state. The panel plans to address the Department of Environmental Management about its decision last spring to trim shrubs and plants almost to the dirt at Beavertail State Park.
Earlier, the commissioners had written to the DEM’s Robert Paquette in the hope of obtaining some assurance the state would not repeat the mistake at Beavertail. The state previously had admitted that DEM workers cut the growth back too far at Beavertail and failed to abide by the restrictions in the permit from the Coastal Resources Management Council. (The permit allowed for trimming the vegetation down to about 4 feet high. Instead, the state took the shrubs down to about 1/4 inch off the ground, Commissioner Patrick Driscoll said.)
Paquette replied to the Conservation Commission, but his letter provided no such assurances, they said.
In his letter, Paquette appeared to justify the “vegetation management” at Beavertail on several fronts: because the shrubs have grown back, the coastline was not damaged, and trimming the vegetation opened up water views to improve the visitor experience at the park.
Paquette’s letter, the commission said, also found fault with the statement that the Beavertail vegetation had been clear-cut, and Driscoll gave him that point on a technicality.
“It wasn’t clear-cut,” Driscoll said dryly. Nonetheless, a rainstorm could have washed away the ground cover in the sensitive buf- fer zone and left the ground “barren.”
The commissioners conceded that most of the shrubbery at Beavertail has indeed grown back, but they added that it’s only because the summer was hot and dry.
Driscoll said Paquette seemed to be patting himself on the back and saying he had done a good job at Beavertail. He went on to say he was glad the visitors enjoyed the park, but it wasn’t DEM’s job to raze coastal buffer vegetation.
Chairwoman Carol Trocki said the Paquette letter “doesn’t inspire much confidence” that they won’t do it again.
“It doesn’t inspire any confi- dence at all,” Commissioner Maureen Coleman added.
As a matter of principle, Driscoll said, the panel must respond. The commissioners voted to send a follow-up letter to DEM and the Costal Resources Management Council. In the letter, they will go on the record to say the Department of Environment Management set a bad example for homeowners. The letter will also note that DEM failed to acknowledge there was a problem with the work done at Beavertail and that the conservation commissioners in the future would like an acknowledgement, Coleman said.
The Conservation Commission may also use this episode to lay a cornerstone to a new public education campaign about the value of protecting sensitive coastal buffer zones. Trocki said enforcement is not the only way to fight violations. The new approach might enlist voluntary support for the conservation laws.
Coleman said every homeowner on the bay would like to clear-cut the buffer zone to improve his or her view.
“We’ve been dealing with three homeowners doing the same thing, and now the state’s doing it,” he said. He suggested the state’s conduct at Beavertail might have created momentum for subsequent violations.
“You can do it, why can’t I?” said Brown, referring to the attitude homeowners may have after seeing the state cutting down buffer zones.
Commissioner Ted Smayda said the violations seemed to have become “contagious.” Smayda said people seem to have adopted the attitude, “If no one’s looking, I’ll do it.”
Driscoll said he recently discovered a dozen cedar trees chopped down at Fort Wetherill near the area used to view the America’s Cup World Series. He suggested the commissioners should investigate who removed the trees and why.
“Added up in linear feet, it might be impressive to see how much has been chunked,” Brown said. Brown continued by saying the loss has a “cumulative impact,” and he estimated over a mile of brush and ground cover has been axed, primarily to create better water views.
Trocki noted the commissioners could not ask the Town Council to support them in the dispute with the state at this time. On the solicitor’s advice, Trocki said the process would be for the Town Council to invite DEM to a meeting and notify the agency in advance that the councilors did plan to discuss the conservation violation and take a position on it.
In other business, the panel also discussed the clearing at the Hull Cove right-of-way off Beavertail Road. Two issues – the attempt to block public access to Hull Cove and the clear-cutting of vegetation in an area that is principally wetlands – concerned the commissioners, Trocki said. However, because litigation is pending over the status of the right-of-way – the town claims to own the property by adverse possession – she suggested that the commission proceed slowly and send a letter to the council with a list of concerns.
Trocki also said the commissioners might want to re-evaluate their role as stewards in the light of criticism from an abutter. The resident in a letter to the Jamestown Press said by encouraging public access to coastal areas, the town and the commissioners have contributed more than any other single source to the “destruction, abuse and demise of the ecological health of Hull Cove.”
Coleman questioned that argument. “So the public is damaging the resource because we’re encouraging public access?”
“Maybe we’re falling down on the stewardship end,” Trocki replied.