2013-12-19 / Front Page

Golfers against multicultural center at country club

They want councilors to be aware of conservation issues with the proposal
By Margo Sullivan

Without specifically taking a side for or against building an multicultural center at the golf course, the Conservation Commission last week voted to urge the town councilors to consider conservation issues when they make decisions about the plans to replace the dilapidated clubhouse.

More specifically, protecting the views and encouraging the use of the property for passive recreation.

The golf course came up twice during the meeting on Dec. 3. At Commissioner Michael Brown’s request, the topic was placed on the meeting agenda under new business. The issue first came up, however, during the open forum when Chip Young and Mike Montoya asked to present a letter to the commissioners.

Young and Montoya are president and vice president, respectively, of the Jamestown Golf Club.

Young said they were “very concerned” about a recent proposal to develop a multipurpose building at the course for community organizations. Golfers expected the town to replace the old clubhouse “with a modernization of the status quo” with no major upgrades. The club anticipates a multicultural center would double the cost of construction, and it fears the costs might be passed on to the golfers.

The Town Council hired the Newport architectural firm of Burgin Lambert to design a new build- ing to replace the existing facility rather than attempting repairs. Engineers deemed the roof unsafe during storms and recommended closing the second floor. So far, the architect has come back with a conceptual plan to replace the clubhouse with a cluster of small buildings.

One option would be to house a multicultural center in one of the small buildings to satisfy community organizations. The proposal drew opposition from Young and Montoya.

“This unexpected scheme would trigger a completely new environment for the clubhouse area and golf course, and seriously detract from their current purpose,” the letter read.

Young said he supports the arts and believes Jamestown should build a multicultural center elsewhere, but he’s convinced locating a multipurpose building at the golf course would be a “serious mistake.”

Young described the concept as “piggybacking a multicultural center” on the first tee and said the plan was “inappropriate and illegal.”

Specifically, Young said, the conservation easement on the property requires the town to use the site strictly as open space, with only one exception: a public golf course.

The conservation easement, dated Dec. 18, 1987, “aims to preserve the present golf course area in its present state in perpetuity,” Young said, quoting from a document.

Young pointed out the Conservation Commission had a role in protecting the land and asked for the board’s support. The golf course has been a model “environmental steward,” said Young, who has worked on environmental issues for 30 years with organizations such as Save the Bay and the Rhode Island Land Trust Council.

“The whole idea of thinking about moving a multicultural arts center is almost a non-starter,” Young said. He cited several other problems with the concept, including zoning regulations and safety.

During the subsequent discussion, Brown admitted he was unaware of the deed restrictions that would appear to preclude locating a multicultural center at the golf course. However, he attended the architectural presentation to the Town Council and learned a zoning change would be required to allow a multicultural center on the site.

“My recommendation was going to be that we kind of put our foot down on the conservation issues,” Brown said.

However, Brown admitted he liked the architect’s idea to move the clubhouse “out of the way and open up the viewshed.” The site affords “one of the more beautiful vistas” on the island, he said, with panoramas over Watson Farm.

“I was going to recommend we again put something in front of the Town Council about preserving open space and passive recreation, and protecting or improving viewsheds,” he said.

The commissioners could go further, Brown added, and mention they support the performing arts but other locations might be “more appropriate” for an multicultural center. But he was undecided about how far they should go with an opinion about the proposal.

Commissioner Patrick Driscoll said the panel would really need to see a plan before they assessed the conservation impact. He also objected to characterizing the golf course as passive use.

“It’s fully active,” Driscoll said.

He also questioned whether the commissioners should delve into the issues about the zoning. “Is it our business to really get into the zoning? Is there a net loss or gain?”

Brown said the multicultural center would be adding use, but Driscoll said those uses would occur primarily inside the building and not outdoors.

Commissioner Ted Smayda asked for clarification about why Young and Montoya opposed the proposed center.

“Is the argument against multicultural activity?” he asked.

No, Young replied. “It’s planting it in the heart of the first tee area where it should not be allowed to be built.”

Smayda asked Young a question regarding the definition of recreational use.

As stated in the deed restrictions, Young explained, the only exception would be for a golf course.

Smayda indicated he was not convinced.

“We need to sort out some of the nuances,” Smayda said.

Commissioner George Souza said the commissioners should follow their charter.

“I would think our support would be toward maintaining and enhancing passive use and the viewshed,” he said.

“Do we want to weigh in against any zoning change?” Brown asked.

Driscoll argued against taking a stand against a zoning change. Zoning has been changed before, he said, citing alterations at Fort Getty when the town wanted to consider installing wind turbines.

“This is easily done,” Driscoll said. “Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad reasons.”

As for the golf course, Driscoll said it’s a nice space, but it falls “thoroughly under the rubric of active recreation.”

“It’s not passive and it’s not really open to the public either,” he said.

According to Smayda, the commissioners are obliged to protect the golf course. However, there are ways of compromising, he said.

“As long as it’s not degraded,” Driscoll added.

Brown said the commissioners could wait another month or so before making any recommendation to the councilors. But ultimately, they voted to send a letter asking the councilors to consider the conservation issues before they made a decision about the future of the golf course.

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