Controversy continues to swirl around the restoration project for the Hull Cove right-of-way off Beavertail Road, the Conservation Commission acknowledged at its December meeting.
In response to several questions that residents have raised, the commissioners have decided to consult the town’s attorney for answers about the project’s legal compliance.
The town received an $80,000 grant to build a raised boardwalk over the trail, which is considered wetlands. Recently, the Town Council voted to solicit bids for the work, but the councilors are waiting to see proposals before making a decision yet about whether to proceed with construction.
The conservation commissioners decided to continue discussions about Hull Cove – at least to January’s regular meeting – to allow everyone a chance to be heard.
At the last meeting, the panel discussed two letters received about the trail restoration. Gayen Read, a Jamestown resident, sent an email and suggested scrapping the Hull Cove project in favor of building a boardwalk at Great Creek. Also, Newport attorney Karen Augeri Benson communicated with the commissioners on behalf of her client, Joshua W. Smith. He is a Jamestown resident whose property abuts the Hull Cove trail.
Chairwoman Maureen Coleman said Read has presented “an awesome idea,” and the commissioners, in fact, have tried in the past to build an observation platform at Great Creek. The state coastal council, however, will not give permission.
“We’ve tried for years to get a tiny little platform,” said Coleman.
And there’s another problem with the Great Creek proposal, according to Commissioner Anne Kuhn-Hines. The Audubon Society, not Jamestown, actually owns the property. It would have to agree to a boardwalk.
In summarizing the email, Coleman said Read had suggested a boardwalk at Great Creek instead of Hull Cove because the handicap accessibility would be too diffi- cult at Hull Cove. She thought the town would have better options at the other location.
Read’s email is “all about better handicap accessibility,” Commissioner Michael Brown said. The handicap accessibility, however, was not the main issue driving the Hull Cove boardwalk.
Coleman suggested the commissioners should send a reply and explain the history behind the Hull Cove boardwalk. The current proposal calls for handicap accessibility because of the grant requirements.
Otherwise, Coleman said, “We would never have said it needs to be handicap accessible.”
In the other letter, Benson, writing on behalf of Smith, discussed several concerns about the boardwalk being so close to his land. For one, Smith said the boardwalk is so high that people walking there would be able to see into his home’s windows.
Commissioner Patrick Driscoll said Smith would be free to install “his own plantings” to screen his property
But Brown conceded the area is “pretty bald” once the leaves fall off the trees.
Commissioner Ted Smayda said he has some concerns about the lawyer’s argument.
She uses a phrase, he said, referring to special rights for abutters. Smayda said he doesn’t believe any special rights exist.
“This special rights thing,” Smayda said, “I think it is totally bogus.”
Coleman said she anticipates Benson is correct.
“When one of the best lawyers in Rhode Island tells me that, I tend to believe her,” Coleman said.
Moreover, notification to the abutters is typically required at planning and zoning hearings. But rather than argue the point, Coleman will refer the question to the town solicitor.
“I’ll ask the town’s lawyer,” she said. “We’re assuming the town complies with all legal requirements.”
Meanwhile, Brown said, the commissioners should acknowledge the Benson letter but not make any reply.
In another development, Smith has offered a proposal related to the Hull Cove project. He asked to present it. Coleman said Town Planner Lisa Bryer invited him to attend a Planning Department meeting on Dec. 13.
Brown summed up the remaining role for the Conservation Commission per the Hull Cove trail restoration project. He said the board’s role was diminishing as the town staff takes over the actual construction.
The commissioners could weigh in with recommendations about conservation issues, like plantings, but should not recommend anything related to technical issues.
“I don’t see it in our purview,” he said, adding that a debate on handicap accessibility could “go on and on.”
As Coleman summed up the situation, the hearing had been open and the commissioners had received public comments and sent them to the councilors. She agreed the commissioners were handing the project over to the town.
“I think the town is pretty competent for planning a construction project,” she said.
Smayda suggested the commissioners could send a letter “reiterating our strong support” for the boardwalk. The letter could say and mention how the project will restore the damage done to the trail when some unknown person illegally mowed down the vegetation there, he added.
Before winding down, though, Brown suggested waiting another month.
“Feedback’s still coming,” he said. “One more cycle of comments might be helpful.”
“OK,” Smayda said. “That would be a good way to start the New Year off.”
In other trail business, Coleman reported she gave Town Administrator Kevin Paicos “a quick tour of the trails.” Paicos is involved with Boy Scouts, she said, and mentioned the trails might provide some projects for them.
“It would be nice to promote a park for the north end,” Smayda said.
“Actually, that came up on our tour,” Coleman responded.