Commission celebrates 30 years
Thirty years ago this month the Jamestown Town Council approved the creation of a Conservation Commission.
It was in 1983 that Councilor Jack Heelan became aware of state legislation that gave authority to cities and towns to create conservation boards. Heelan introduced the idea to the councilors, and they agreed with him. Local biologist Chris Powell was then appointed the commission’s first chairperson.
Powell ended up chairing the commission for 27 years – he was reappointed each time his term was up. Powell said when the commission was created, the island was under a great deal of pressure from developers. The board was seen as a way to preserve open space and farmland on a long-term basis.
“People like Jack just looked around and realized what a beautiful community it was,” Powell said. “It was only going to stay that way if we could plan development and control development, build where we need to build and not build where we shouldn’t be building.”
The Conservation Commission is a government body. Members are appointed by the Town Council and serve at the pleasure of the councilors. Originally it was a five-member group, but has since grown to seven members. The commission is strictly an advisory group. It has no authority to create or enforce regulations. Instead the commissioners make recommendations to the other municipal bodies – Town Council, Planning Commission, Harbor Commission, Zoning Board of Review – and any other committees dealing with conservation matters.
The commission is responsible for the island’s open space, and it has the authority to purchase land for conservation purposes. One of the commission’s earliest successes was the creation of the Conanicut Island Land Trust. The trust grew out of recommendations by Robert Lemire, author of the book, “Creative Land Development: Bridge to the Future.”
Lemire was invited to town and participated in public workshops with the Town Council and Conservation Commission. He recommended the formation of a land trust to help preserve open space.
The commission also played a major role in the negotiations surrounding the cross-island road that links the Jamestown Bridge with the Newport span. Originally the state Department of Transportation proposed filling in 10 acres of wetlands, but the commission urged the council to reject that idea.
“The road runs right through the watershed,” Powell said. “They were going to build an elevated road with slopes that come up to the road. We said they couldn’t fill 10 acres of our watershed.”
A lawsuit between the town and state ensued, and Jamestown prevailed in court. The Department of Transportation, back at the drawing board, came up with the idea of building vertical walls that negated most of the need to fill the wetlands.
The commission also pressed for the wildlife tunnels that run beneath the road so animals could cross under the road and not on it. Also, the conservation panel fought for the storm-water system that takes water from the road before it gets to the watershed and dumps it into a retention pond that goes into the bay. The group battled for a landscaped parkway as opposed to an expressway with wooden Jersey barriers running down the center.
“I remember proposing the wooden barriers and they thought we were nuts,” Powell said. “If they went to New Jersey they would see them on the Garden State Parkway everywhere. The Conservation Commission got a lot of concessions from the De- partment of Transportation. They weren’t too happy with the town, but the town prevailed.”
In 1980, the commission asked University of Rhode Island professor Frank Golet if he could have his class map the island’s wetlands. Those maps became the basis for all the wetlands-related legislation and preservation on the island. The purchase and preservation of the golf course and the adjacent 35-acre sanctuary can also be credited to the efforts of the Conservation Commission.
Powell said another major achievement of the commission has been raising awareness about the need to preserve open space and farmland. The biggest challenge for the commission going forward, he says, is to make sure regulations that were put in place – including wetlands setbacks – remain in place. He also hopes that preserved properties are stewarded properly.
Overall, Powell is satisfied that everything the commission set out to do has been accomplished.
“There’s not a lot of development left,” Powell said. “What’s been built on the island is pretty much what you’re going to see in terms of major development.”
Maureen Coleman has been serving as the chairwoman of the commission since March. She says the commission is currently looking at a diverse mix of issues that include proposed projects like the restoration of Round Marsh. Saltwater flow at the marsh has been restricted resulting in the growth of an invasive species of non-native grass. The project to restore the marsh back to its full function will begin in the spring.
“The invasive species thrives when there is not enough saltwater flow,” Coleman said. “We’re going to open up pathways in the marsh so that the water can flow.”
The Round Marsh project is a partnership between the commission and the National Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A lot of the work will be done by the town’s Department of Public Works.
The pipe at Racquet Road was a recently completed commission project. The work will result in increased flow to the marsh there. There are also plans to restore the dunes at Mackerel Cove, and the commission is supporting the town in implementing a management plan for town-owned lots that have conservation easements.
Coleman agrees with Powell that the island is approaching buildout. She said it is important that the town continue to be strategic and forward-thinking in implementing ordinances that protect the wetlands and coastal resources.
“There is so much pressure to develop, even when it’s not appropriate,” Coleman said. “The smart thing the town has done is protect wetlands where maybe they’ve been overdeveloped in the past. They’re really threatened. A lot of little developments chipping away are just as bad as one big development. So we have to be vigilant that there’s no backsliding.”
Coleman said it’s important to make sure conservation always remains in the forefront of the town’s strategic planning.