Town Council Approves Pawcatuck River Preserve

At Monday night’s Council meeting the Town Council Chamber was filled with supporters of the acquisition of land that will provide residents access to 1,600 feet of frontage on the Pawcatuck River and also protect fields and forest and hiking trails.

Speaking in support of the acquisition were representatives from The Nature Conservancy, the Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association, and the Salt Ponds Coalition. There were also positive recommendations from the Charlestown Conservation Commission, Parks and Recreation Commission, and Planning Commission.

Karen Jarrett, President of the Charlestown Land Trust, made a slide presentation explaining the land and its values for preservation and public access. The land trust won a RIDEM Natural Heritage Grant of $258K towards the purchase of this property and has worked with the land owner for several years to negotiate the sale.

The Charlestown Land Trust was created by the Town of Charlestown to satisfy the goals and actions of the 1991 Comprehensive Plan. It began as a subcommittee of the Charlestown Conservation Commission. As it began to work with land owners it became clear that many of the long time land owners were hesitant to work directly with Town governments. With the encouragement of the Town Council at that time, the municipal land trust became a private land trust.

The Pawcatuck River property is an excellent example of how this public/private collaboration works. The Charlestown Land Trust identified a property with outstanding conservation values and then worked with the owner to create a relationship and encourage the owner to protect their land. The Land Trust then submitted a grant application to the RIDEM. After winning the grant they finished their negotiations with the land owner and then formalized a partnership with the Town to supply the balance of funding ($341K). The town will now own the land and DEM and the Land Trust will hold a joint conservation easement that insures that the land will always be protected for conservation and public access.

Richard Thieke, member of the Charlestown Conservation Commission, relayed his commission’s support for the purchase and said the Conservation Commission would manage the property and hoped the Land Trust would be able to assist them with that work.

Jane Weidman, the Town Planner, described the Planning Commission’s positive advisory, described the site walk, and the beauty of the property, and gave a summary of the relevant sections of the Charlestown Comprehensive
Plan that show that the purchase of the property as protected public open space is not only consistent with, but achieves specific goals of the plan.

The compatibility of open space and village was described eloquently by Jane Weidman when she read from the Planning Commission advisory,

The historic village of Carolina was always characterized by dense development along the road encircled by farm and forest. Even the mill workers of the industrial age were rewarded with recreation on the river and beautiful pastoral surroundings. The village is now densely developed and will likely receive more development and infill. The preservation of this property will ensure that residents always have an opportunity to walk to the river through historic farm fields and forest and preserve this pastoral interface of mill village and nature.

Tim Mooney from the Rhode Island Chapter of The Nature Conservancy thanked the citizens of Charlestown for supporting open space, the Land Trust for their hard work, and the Sprague family for being willing sellers. He spoke of The Nature Conservancy’s support of this particular project and how it complements the goals of his organization (TNC), The Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association, RIDEM, and USFWS to protect land and important habitat along and in the Pawcatuck River.

Denise Poyer, Project Coordinator for the Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association, also spoke in support of the acquisition. She said her organization wholeheartedly supports the purchase and explained its importance to the Congressional designation of the Pawcatuck as a “Wild and Scenic” river. She explained that the river at the Sprague property is both important for habitat and recreation.

Art Ganz, President of the Salt Ponds Coalition, said his Board of Directors wished to offer their support for this purchase, both for the protection of River habitat, but also the protection of ground water. He also noted that the property is nearly across the street from the Charlestown Elementary School and what a great opportunity for teachers to bring their students to this preserve to study the river and its wetland habitats and other outdoor education.

Paul Singer, the attorney for the Land Trust, explained that DEM will require a conservation easement as part of the Natural Heritage Grant and that they approve of the purchase price.

There were eight other residents who spoke in support and many more in the audience showed their support from time to time with applause.

One speaker spoke against partnering with State or Federal agencies and advised instead that the Town remain an independent holder of title by paying for the purchase entirely with Town open space funds.

Another opponent, Jim Mageau, suggested that the grant application and all other effort should have been the work of Town staff, rather than of the Land Trust. However, the Land Trust has put in many hundreds of hours on this project and the Town would have had to hire additional staff to get the job done.

Evelyn Smith, a local developer who owns the adjoining property, spoke against land preservation in the village which she described as a designated “Growth Center”. However, maps created by the consultants who are preparing the 2016 Comprehensive plan, show this property as open space.

After a short break Tom Gentz read a resolution in support of the purchase and the Town Council voted unanimously to acquire the property.