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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cheryl Dowdell comments at Council meeting

Cheryl P. Dowdell
by Cheryl P. Dowdell, Vice Chair, 
Parks and Recreation Commission

Good evening to you all and thank you for this time on the agenda.

I serve as Vice Chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission. Paula Anderson, unfortunately, could not be here and I am happy to speak.

Read the rest of her speech past the break or listen here.

I also served on the ad hoc committee to put information together for the town council for last year's vote on the new beach facilities at the Charlestown and Blue Shutters Beaches and served on the Charlestown Budget Commission, appointed for 2 terms, served on 2 Charlestown Charter Revision Commissions and was on several search committees for administrators at the Chariho School District. My husband, Bill and I have lived in Charlestown for the last 26 years and have reared our 4 sons here.

I tell you all this because there are current issues that lend themselves to an historical perspective from those of us that have been citizens here for quite a while. I also carry with me first hand witness to the vision and the selfless dedication of those stewards of Charlestown, many of whom are in this room and some here in spirit as they are no longer with us…George Bliven, Joe Ungaro and Andy Pulowski come to mind…

Most importantly, you need to know that members of the Parks and Recreation Commission come here this evening with heavy hearts. There has been much discussion in town as of late and we would like to try to clear the air and appeal for a deep breath and a pause in actions that you may take this evening.

Not quite four years ago, the Charlestown Town Council adopted the Ninigret Park Master Plan, after presentation in the spring of 2008, culminating years of study, research, and the use of town finances and grant money, along with thousands of hours from a large number of seriously dedicated elected officials, town managers, department heads, employees and citizens who believe strongly in Ninigret Park being the "People's Park", its 55 Deeded Town Owned acres (which we own outright and which are not within the jurisdiction of the National Park Services, as Ms Carney has pointed out in her remarks), along with 172.4 acres to be used “as a public park and public recreation in perpetuity by the Town of Charlestown", It’s spelled out in the overview of the adopted plan (available here).

Dedicated citizens along with the consultants put in treasure, time and talent to this wonderful project, donated selflessly, and is a great example of what those of many different perspectives and "political stripes" can do. It’s a testament of truly working for the betterment of Charlestown now and for many generations to come. We who participated are very proud of this document.

This massive project was done knowing that its culmination and finished product would carry us years into the future and was taken very seriously by all and with that goal in mind. It also takes into consideration future uses and plans for the park and improvements that can be made.

It should be noted that there are over 13 stakeholders at present in the town park and listed in the Plan. Recently, the Frosty Drew Observatory has been prominent as wanting certain elements important to them as a high priority, however there are over a dozen equally as important entities, plus more in the future plans for the park (that were carefully reviewed and given conceptual approval for consideration). It’s our belief that these Stakeholders must receive equal respect and consideration for their needs in parts of Ninigret Park.

The Charlestown Town Council adopted the Ninigret Park Master Plan later in 2008, a little over three Years ago. (note: Our existing Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2006, almost 3 years before the Ninigret Park Plan!)

Ladies and gentlemen of the Council, this is hardly a musty, old and unchangeable document of antiquity. It is a living document that, as recently as last April, 2011, with a second workshop in June 2011, was successfully adjusted by you all, for the planting of trees along the entrance road.

We had a very lengthy workshop at that time and it was carried over into another meeting, the first well attended by the public, to discuss the Park and how it was progressing. You all seemed very pleased in general about our progress. The major lament by all was the lack of funding and that this was the main reason for plans not progressing. Applying for grants was strongly suggested. At that time, there were no negatives about the Plan, only that it was "slow going" and dependent upon donations of "elbow grease" and the largess of many benefactors. At this workshop just 9 months ago, we asked you all for direction as to your priorities in the park. I’d like to point out that, after researching the minutes of that workshop, the number one priority voiced by the Council, noted in bold for emphasis, was to bring permanent electricity in the park. Number 2 was to protect neighbors like Arnolda from as much sound as possible at Park Events; and to improve the entrance to the park. 

In fact, at our June 20, 2011 meeting, we were encouraged to improve the event area to make it better so we could charge more to its users; and to research and pursue grant activity to improve the recreational areas of the park.

You also listened with respect and deference to John Van Slyke, the son-in-law of “The Forefather of Ninigret Park”, George Bliven. He stated that George’s dream was always about the People, the Big Apple Circus, the children’s playground….. and Mr. Van Slyke thought the town’s duty was to those people and the existing design we all worked so hard on. He stated it doesn’t have to be revised every 2-3 years. He said, “The Ninigret Master Plan is a contract with the community.”

Over the term of our involvement, The Parks and Recreation Commission has kept the Council well informed and has carried out our charge to the letter. Since our workshop, one of the few contacts from the Town Council to us was regarding banning smoking at the town beaches. We also recommended increases to the 2012 beach fees which you asked us to do last year, in 2011.

Then, we were frankly shell-shocked at our February Parks and Recreation Meeting….6 weeks ago.

When we read the memo handed out to us regarding an agenda item for the Town Council Agenda Meeting on March 7, 2012, regarding discussion and a decision with the Budget Commission to request $15,000 in the budget to eliminate the current Master Plan, create another “Master Plan committee” with several new stakeholders, (but few of the stakeholders listed in our current master plan,) all to create a new redesigned master plan for Ninigret Park, we were truly shaken and found this to be very disturbing.

Our detailed workshops last spring gave the Council great familiarity with the Master Plan. We are very troubled that substantive and game changing plans to Ninigret Park and to its property rights with regard to Parks and Recreation were potentially being implemented and that these discussions take place with the Budget Commission! The opinion and counsel of the Parks and Recreation Commission was not sought out!

We are the Commission of standing regarding Ninigret Park in Charlestown. Misinformation has been disseminated, citizens are confused and you have very frustrated stewards and volunteers on our Commission.

A non-smoking ban at the beaches is important, and thank you for coming to us for our opinion, however why would you discuss such a huge, expensive and seminal change to one of the most important parts of Charlestown without coming to the very Commission whose members have the historical and current true and correct information regarding the issues that the Town Council has questions on?

We frankly think our relevance has been neutered if this path that has been suggested is followed ….

We do not understand how and why you would want to do this; to jettison the current Ninigret Park master plan, bypass the Commission and give up deeded property rights on our Town owned 55, without serious and open discussions with your own Parks and Recreation Commission and an open discussion and a vote by Charlestown’s Citizens.

It has been written that the amount of $15,000 be used to fund another study for a new redesigned master plan.

I strongly recommend that if there is $15,000 that you and the Budget Commission have available, please redirect it into much needed, vetted and approved priorities that the Town Council directed Parks and Recreation to complete at the Park, such as fulfilling the Town Council’s directive to us, as the number one priority, of bringing Electricity into Ninigret Park.

Thank you for your time and attention to my remarks.

Respectfully submitted,
Cheryl Dowdell