Wetlands permit is latest speed bump for proposed bike path
Four years ago, Bob Sutton, who was then a member of the Town Council, proposed the idea of creating a bike path that would connect the west and east sides of Conanicut Island. He thought the idea of improving bicycle travel around the island was important, and the council agreed with him. A bicycle committee was created – Sutton was made chairman.
Initially the committee hoped that the state Department of Transportation could be convinced to make modifications to North Road for bicycling purposes. Soon the committee began to realize that there were a number of issues related to North Road, including environmental, structural and rightof way problems.
“It has about all of the problems you could have on a two-mile stretch,” Sutton said.
As it became obvious that the North Road idea wouldn’t work, the committee decided to look at how a bike path could be completed so that one day it could include travel over the Jamestown Bridge. The panel determined that whatever it decided, it should fit in with long-range planning of the state’s transportation department.
From west to east, the committee envisioned a path where a biker would cross the Jamestown Bridge, exit at Helm Street and follow Tashtassuc Avenue to North Road. From there the cyclist would turn left, heading north to the new bike path that would begin just south of the town reservoir.
The projected path would take the rider behind the reservoir and dam, and up the old road that still exists on the eastern side of the reservoir. It would continue south onto Eldred Avenue, then East Shore Road, finally terminating at the golf course. Theoretically, if a person wanted to continue their journey at that point, they could take a bus over the Pell Bridge with their bicycle or simply ride into town on Conanicus Avenue.
The entire length of the path would be about 1 mile, with about two-thirds of that on the new section running from North Road to East Shore Road. It is that section that is the subject of discussion between the committee, the town and the state.
The Bike Path Design Committee created a plan that was approved by the Town Council two years ago. Through the town administrator and town engineer, the committee requested $21,000 from Jamestown taxpayers at the annual Financial Town Meeting. The money was to be used to create an engineering design suffi- cient to submit a application to the state Department of Environmental Management for a wetlands permit. The funding was approved, and Parr Engineering was hired to do the design for the portion of the proposed path that needs a wetlands determination.
Parr originally calculated that the fee for the wetlands application would amount to $300. Recently the DEM informed the town that the fee was $1,200, not the $300 that the town earmarked for the application fee. The state said it would not begin the review process until the balance was paid in full. After some discussion about the issue at two recent Town Council meetings, the councilors approved the additional $900 expenditure.
“What we are hoping for from the DEM is that we do not require a wetlands permit,” Sutton said.
According to Sutton, there have been three meetings so far with DEM. The committee is hopeful the state will grant a preliminary determination indicating that no wetlands permit is required. That decision could happen within the next three months. If a permit is needed, the process will take longer, but no additional fee will be required.
At this stage the project is at what is known as the 30 percent design stage, which is required for DOT consideration. Despite the fact that no state permits are required for the project, the town is working with the transportation department in the hope that it will agree to participate. In a strategic move, two years ago the previous Town Council requested that the bike path be placed on the Transportation Improvement Plan. The DOT agreed to do so.
“You have to make that request and be accepted for it in order for DOT to consider funding at any point in the process,” Sutton said. “It is our hope that at some point that DOT will participate in funding.”
The 30 percent design stage is also the stage where the state will agree to make a wetlands determination. It is one of five stages that go from preliminary design to 100 percent, at which point construction drawings and specifications are complete.
If the preliminary determination is granted, Sutton would like to see the project move forward with construction drawings. He said the biggest design element that is needed will be for a small bridge that will span the spillway along the path. Ideally a prefabricated bridge would be developed elsewhere and then brought to the site.
Other work that could begin would include preliminary clearing of the old road that is part of the path. The amount of work that will be done by the town’s Public Works Department, the state or outside contractors is yet to be determined.
Sutton said that it is imaginable that a bike path can be in place by 2014, but it would require everything to go right. The fact that the project is on the Transportation Improvement Plan and that all of the path’s right-of-way is on townowned land are important elements, as would be the preliminary determination from DEM.
The biggest obstacle remaining is financial.
“What we don’t have is somebody saying, ‘Here is the money necessary to build it all,’” Sutton said.