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Ninigret Park Master Plan Comments from TC President

The Town Council met on Monday, April 15, 2024 to have their initial discussion about the draft Ninigret Park Master Plan update. Town Council President, Deborah Carney read the following statement into the record:

The purpose of tonight’s meeting is for the Town Council to discuss and take any potential action on the Ninigret Park Master Plan as drafted by VHB.

After the Council has had the opportunity to discuss the plan and ask questions of the VHB representatives, I will open the floor up to public comment.  

The Council will not take a vote on the plan until after those that wish to speak on the plan have had the opportunity to do so. 

I am taking a few moments to remind everyone of proper decorum for Council meetings.  There will be no name calling, no yelling out, no booing, no jeering, no applauding. Tonight’s meeting will not be a free-for-all.  Everyone will be given the opportunity to speak without fear of being heckled or booed.  

Please be respectful of those sitting around you.  If you wish to carry on a conversation, please take it out to the hallway.  

To have a productive discussion this evening, everyone needs to be on the same page as to what the Master Plan Update is, and what it is not.  

Over the past several months, there has been much misinformation about the Ninigret Park Master Plan update posted on social media.  This misinformation campaign has created division in our town, which is unfortunate.  The park is being used as a political tool to create confusion, concern, hostility, and discontent. The park is supposed to be a place for all to enjoy. A place to come together as a community. Not a weapon used to divide us. 

To get everyone on the same page, I need to correct some statements made online.

Contrary to what was written on social media, this is the Council’s first discussion regarding the draft plan.  The Council has not approved this plan, nor has the Council discussed implementing any of the recommendations, let alone spending over $30 million or $40 million of tax-payers money, as we have been accused of doing. 

Contrary to what has been repeatedly posted online, the Council has not proposed constructing a concert/ event stadium.  We are not constructing one for 12,000 people.  We are not constructing one for 14,000 people.  We are not proposing constructing any concert/ event stadium.

Contrary to what was written on social media, the Council did not remove proposed cost estimates from the plan.  VHB was working on updating the cost estimates which they did, and then emailed to the town last week.  

Contrary to what was written online, the Council did not remove the letters from the end of the report, as we were accused of doing. The Council had nothing to do with the letters.  I know that not all communications were included.  For example, the Chariho Cowboys Football and Cheerleading Organization submitted an online petition in support of improvements to Ninigret Park with over 59 signatures.  Their petition was not included at the end of the report. The Town Council had no role in determining what was included, and what was not included.

To further clarify non-factual information posted online, I offer the following answers to questions I have been asked based on social media posts:

1. Why is the Town Council updating the Master Plan? The Town is required to update the Ninigret Park Master Plan every ten years, The last plan was adopted in 2008. That was sixteen years ago.  The Town is past due.

Page 77 of the draft Master Plan, which is packet page 79 this evening, includes meeting notes from July 13, 1994, with Mr. John T. Kelly, who at the time administrated the Federal Lands to Parks Program for the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.  Mr. Kelly attended a meeting with town officials.

This document from this meeting states, “The application to acquire surplus government land included a ten-year plan of Utilization.  This plan must be updated by the end of each ten-year period.”

I stress this, because I have been asked by multiple people, why is the Council updating the plan.  The answer is because the Town is required to do so.

2. What happened to the 2014 Master Plan?  A Master Plan update was drafted in 2014 but it was never approved by the Town Council. I was not on the Town Council in 2014.  I don’t know why it wasn’t approved.  But as of today, the town is not current with our obligation to update the plan.

3. Why is the Council only looking at the 2008 and 2014 Master Plans?  We aren’t.  We are looking at numerous factors. This accusation is false.

On January 23, 2023, the Town Council first discussed updating the Master Plan, as the Town is required to do. 

The Town Council unanimously approved the following motion: “Motion to direct the Parks and Recreation Commission with the assistance of the Parks and Recreation Department to compile a draft Master Plan detailing the steps necessary to implement improvements to Ninigret Park utilizing the 2008 Ninigret Park Master Plan and the 2014 Ninigret Park Master Plan Update draft, the 2020 Comprehensive Plan and the 2021 Townwide Survey documents. The information should include, but not be limited to, the following objectives, with no preference given to the order listed:

a. Using as a guide, the 2008 Ninigret Park Master Plan and the 2014 Ninigret Park Master Plan Update draft, specifically the Master Plan Project Areas Map found on page 46 of that plan, compile the report so as to have separate project areas and the details of each individually identified so they may or may not be implemented as stand-alone projects, in groups, or as a whole.

b.   Within the Project Areas, make updates and recommendations taking into account existing infrastructure and any physical changes that have occurred from 2014 to current.

c. Identify and recommend the order of priority in which each project area may be implemented if done individually.

d.  Analyze, update where needed, and combine the information from the 2008 and 2014 plans, respectively and include such in the draft Master Plan.

e. Seek input and include participation from the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Frosty Drew Observatory and Science Center, the Charlestown Senior Center, Police, Fire and Rescue agencies, the sports groups that utilize the current fields, the Chariho Cowboys, the Public, and additional interested parties.

f.  Compile a list of all steps needed to take project areas from current to completion for each project. The Parks and Recreation Commission Chair and the Director of Parks and Recreation, or their designees, shall appear at the April 2023 Town Council meeting with a preliminary update. Any additional resources needed for the Commission to accomplish its report can be addressed at that time. The Commission shall have one-hundred and twenty (120) days to complete this report or request additional time from the Town Council.” 

4.   Why did the Town hire an outside company to draft the plan?  The Parks & Recreation Department requested assistance with the task of updating the plan. In part, the memo from the Parks and Recreation Director reads, “As the director of the Parks and Recreation Department, I do not feel that the volunteer Parks and Recreation Commission members have the time nor expertise for this task. I feel an impartial and professional assessing of the information would be the best path for this major endeavor. We would like to seek proposals from a consulting firm in Park and Recreation Master Planning and community engagement. The Commission Chairman and I feel an outside qualified professional agency would create the most effective master plan that will reflect the unique environmental and community interests of Ninigret Park for years to come. We do not feel that we are able to meet the necessary design standards, editorial skills, environmental expertise nor are we equipped for the graphic capabilities that a full-time firm would provide.

5. Where is the money coming from to pay for this plan?  The funding is coming from the American Rescue Plan Act funds that the federal government awarded to Charlestown in 2021. 

On February 13, 2023, after receiving the memo from the Parks & Recreation Director, the Town Council discussed this matter during the Town Council meeting and approved the following motion: “Motion to authorize the Parks and Recreation Director to seek proposals from a consulting firm in Park and Recreation Master Planning and community engagement for the creation of a 2023 Master Plan for Ninigret Park and the potential appropriation of $35,000 in budgetary funding for this purpose, to be taken from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Funds, Budget Line Item 43.000.5100 (ARPA FUND Expenses), and to authorize the Acting Town Administrator and Town Treasurer, each, to take any and all such actions, and to execute and deliver such certificates, receipts or other documents as may be necessary to carry out the foregoing.

On July 10, 2023 the Town Council unanimously approved the following motion: “Motion to award the Ninigret Park Master Plan Update 2023 Bid to Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB) in the Amount of $31,300.00 as Budgeted in Line Item 43.000.51400 (ARPA Fund Expenses) and Authorization of the Acting Town Administrator and Town Treasurer, Each, to Take Any and All Such Actions, and Execute and Deliver Such Certificates, Receipts or Other Documents as May be Necessary to Carry into Effect the Foregoing."

6. What is the Master Plan? As written in the report, “A master plan is a wholistic long-term strategy or blueprint that outlines potentialopportunities for development, growth, or revitalization.”

The Master Plan is not a construction plan. In 1994, the Town Council approved the Ninigret Park Ten Year Utilization Plan.  That plan from 30 years ago included, among other items, a bandshell and a football field.  Even though both were in the plan, they were not built.  I point this out, because based on comments posted online, some people think that everything in this plan is somehow going to be built in the next few years.  It’s not.

The approved 2008 plan also included a list of items that were never implemented. For example, removing invasive species of plants, reducing the amount of paved areas and replacing them with grassed fields, clearing an area of the park for the festivals so as not to impact other areas of the park. This is a short list. My point is none of these things were done over the past sixteen years, even though they were in the plan.

During the November 30th meeting of the Master Plan Update Subcommittee, the consultants from VHB showed a new community center in their plan. Contrary to what was printed online, this is not something the Town Council asked them to include.  If a new community center were to be built, the cost would likely be over ten million dollars. The new community center that South Kingstown built a few years ago cost over seven million dollars, and they have public water and public sewer. Charlestown does not. That alone would increase our costs. Also, Ninigret Park is in the hurricane zone, which has stricter, and more expensive building requirements. This Town Council never expressed an interest in constructing a community center.  

The consultants included it so that if in the future the town decided this is something the town wants to build, then the location in the plan would be a logical place to put it, but not required. Also, if in the future the residents of Charlestown decide this is something we want to construct, then there would need to be a construction plan, along with associated costs, which would ultimately be voted on by the voters of Charlestown.

To put things in perspective, in 2019, the majority members on the Town Council proposed taking $3 million of the town’s surplus money and transferring it within the budget for a new “community/recreation /senior center”.  There was no plan for this “center”.  I was on the Town Council in 2019 and was the only Councilor that opposed this “plan”.  For the record, none of my fellow Councilors this evening were on the Council in 2019, and none of them were involved with that $3 million proposed transfer of money.

In 2019 the voters came out in force to oppose this transfer of funds and voted down the entire budget that year.  

If a community center is ever seriously proposed, then an actual plan with associated costs would need to be developed. Any proposal of that magnitude should be voted on as a separate warrant item question as was done in 2015 when the voters overwhelmingly approved the citizen petition for $1 million for improvements to Ninigret park as outlined in the 2008 Master Plan.

7.   If something is not in the plan, can it still be built?  Yes. Just because something is not in the plan, that does not mean it can't be built. For example, two years ago the town put in an outdoor exercise area. That was not in the plan, but it was added. About seven years ago, the town installed a "multiuse" path, around the playground. This also was not in the plan, but it was added to the park.

To have a productive discussion this evening, it is crucial for everyone to understand what a Master Plan is. To that end, I will read from page 45 of the draft plan.

“The 2024 Master Plan is not promoting any specific type of development, but highly recommends any future development or park improvements need to be carefully limited to specific locations as depicted in this Master Plan and deemed appropriate through a typical town permitting process. It’s imperative for the Community, and anyone reading this report, to clearly understand the following: 

• A master plan is a wholistic long-term strategy or blueprint that outlines potential opportunities for development, growth, or revitalization. 

• It will serve as a guide for decision-making and future development. 

• All decisions will have to go through standard permitting and approval processes, as determined by local, state, and federal governments. 

• The result of the 2024 Master Plan is a culmination of master plan alternatives including the 2008 Approved Master Plan, the 2014 Draft Master Plan, as well as research and community input 

• A thoughtful process incorporating “Placemaking Principles”. 

• “Placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value.” –

There is no way any plan is going to make everyone completely happy.  There will be some things some residents want, that others don’t.  This draft plan has a little bit of something for most people.  I ask that as we discuss the plan this evening, we all keep an open mind.  While something in the plan might not be what you personally would use, it could be something others would use and enjoy.

Finally, nothing in this plan, or any plan, can be implemented without money. It will ultimately be the 5,000 plus registered voters of Charlestown that will vote on what improvements to fund, or not fund, in Ninigret Park.  

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