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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Who owns Ninigret Park?

Testimony presented by Deborah Carney before the Charlestown Town Council, April 9, 2012
[With links to documents, you can watch here]

Good Evening.  I’m Deborah Carney. I’ve been actively involved in our community for over 12 years.  I previously served as Chair of the Chariho Exit Committee, I served 4 years as President of the Charlestown Town Council, I was a member of the Charlestown Ad Hoc Withdrawal Update Committee, I am a former Chair of the Charter Revision Committee and I am a current member of the Chariho School Committee. 

I mention all this because I have a history that involves knowledge of past events, past agreements and past meetings.

My comments tonight are relevant to Ninigret Park, the town owned 55 acres and the remaining 172 acres.  First it is important to note, the town owns outright, 55 acres at Ninigret Park.  There is a document from a meeting held in 1994 regarding the 10 year Utilization Plan for Ninigret Park.  The information contained herein is crucial to ending some of the confusion and clarifying some of the misinformation over what can be done on the town owned 55 acres and the second 172 acre parcel. [CLICK HERE for the document]

Key sections:

So clearly, National Parks knew what the town was planning for the park, as they were involved in the discussion.  These plans are available at Town Hall.  For the 172 acres, these plans, and subsequent plans include ball fields, little league fields, a skating rink, and the list goes on.  

For the TOWN OWNED 55 acres, the meeting notes clearly indicate that the “55 acres is owned outright by the Town of Charlestown and is NOT within the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.”

Ninigret Park (click to enlarge) from the National
Fish & Wildlife Service. Note the blue section -
town land AND the subsection at the upper end.
That is the exclusively town owned 55 acres
which is OUTSIDE Interior Dept. jurisdiction
This position of “NOT within the jurisdiction of the National Park Service” was further reinforced in 2002.  In early 2000, the town of Charlestown was considering withdrawing from the Chariho School District.  The Facilitation Committee was the committee charged with moving that plan forward.  

The committee considered locating the proposed school on the town owned 55 acres at Ninigret Park.  As part of their due diligence, they held a public meeting on October 17, 2002.  Their invited guests included RIDEM, Parks and Recreation, US FISH AND WILDLIFE and NATIONAL PARK SERVICE.

I will highlight the particulars as they relate to this discussion.  The purpose of the meeting on October 17, 2002 was a fact finding mission on Ninigret Park.  Click here for the minutes. The plan for building a school at Ninigret Park was discussed, and included the potential locations and approximate size for the two schools that were proposed to be built on the 55 acres of town-owned , municipally zoned land.

Some of the comments documented in these minutes need to be highlighted as they show National Parks continued to maintain that they have no jurisdiction over the town owned 55 acres.

The minutes state, “Mr. Polouski asked if US Fish and Wildlife had taken a position on construction of a school at Ninigret Park.  Gary Andres of US Fish and Wildlife stated “NO”.   He stated that the concern would be the effect on the wildlife resource next door regarding lighting, traffic and water quality.  I’ll address this one in more detail later. 

The October 17, 2002 minutes further state, ELYSE LAFOREST OF NATIONAL PARK SERVICE STATED NATIONAL PARKS WOULD HAVE NOTHING TO SAY IF THE PHYSICAL PLANT IS LOCATED ON THE TOWN 55 ACRES.  She stated that National Parks would likely reject a proposal to plan a parking lot on the park acreage.  She added that a trade could probably be negotiated if parking were absolutely required; the town would have to make a request to US Fish and Wildlife.  Ms. Allen (former Councilor Harriet Allen) stated that the parking areas already exist and the decision would be up to Parks and Recreation.

Ms. LaForest also stated in these minutes that the 174 acres of Ninigret Park MUST be available for public use and the National Park Service ONLY GETS INVOLVED WHEN REQUESTED BY THE TOWN.

I do not recall a meeting of this Town Council where the Town Council voted and requested National Parks to get involved with Ninigret Park.  If you did vote, and I have overlooked the minutes of this meeting, please let me know when the meeting was held.

In 1994 John Kelly from the National Park Service stated the town owned 55 acres is NOT within the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.  In 2002 Elyse LaForest from the National Park Service stated National Parks would have nothing to say if the physical plant is located on the town 55 acres.  Over the past 2 decades, National Parks has been clear that the Town owns the 55 acres and National Parks has no jurisdiction over the Town owned land.

Now, let’s go back to what Gary Andres of US Fish and Wildlife stated back in 2002.   He stated that the concern would be the effect on the wildlife resource next door regarding lighting, traffic and water quality.  In 2004, the Charlestown Interim School Committee continued the work of the Facilitation Committee.  

They continued to plan on using Ninigret Park as a location for the school.  The Draft Bond Component Proposal dated January 6, 2004 included $2 million for athletic fields for the school at Ninigret Park and another $1.5 million for parking and roads at Ninigret Park.  

With a combined $3.5 million for parking, roads and athletic fields, I found no record of any objection from either US Fish and Wildlife or National Parks.   There was no objection 8 years ago at a public meeting, documented through meeting minutes, when the Town proposed $3.5 million for parking, roads and athletic fields, why is there objection now? 

From the Facilitation Committee October 21, 2002 minutes. Click here for the whole document

History documented by notes and minutes of public meetings show that over the past 2 decades National Parks has consistently taken the position that they have NO jurisdiction over the town owned 55 acres.  Over the past two decades National Parks has NOT threatened any action against the Town and has NOT threatened to take back the land. 

The remaining 172 acre parcel was transferred to the Town of Charlestown by the National Park Service for PARKS & RECREATION USE BY THE PUBLIC.  As stated earlier, one of the requirements was a ten year plan of utilization.  

That was done in 1994.  In 2003 the Town began the process of updating the plan.  That updated Master Plan was approved in 2008.  For 5 years many committees, commissions, residents, and Town staff attended countless meetings and worked diligently to get the Master Plan approved.

With all this history of Ninigret Park, and all these meetings involving various plans for the Park, I find it disturbing that such a firestorm has been created all of a sudden,  and even more disturbing that anyone would even consider giving away any of the Town’s  rights to develop Ninigret Park.  

Countless citizens of Charlestown have been involved with developing a plan for Ninigret and have been working on this for over 20 years.  I ask that you don’t throw away the hard work of the people of this town, and that you don’t attempt to give up our legal rights at Ninigret Park.