July 23, 2008

Divided Canonchet Panel Opts for Low-Key Use Proposal

By Randal Edgar; Terence Fleming

NARRAGANSETT -- The committee charged with creating a plan for the Canonchet Farm property is recommending conservation and low- impact uses over what some see as a better alternative -- conservation mixed with large-scale public access.

In its most significant vote to date, the Canonchet Farm Master Plan Review Committee decided Saturday that large public functions on the 150-acre property would lead to problems with noise, cleanup and upkeep, said Chairman Thomas Fortier.

The decision set the stage for other votes during what turned into a seven-hour meeting, helping the divided board to decide other issues such as parking, vehicle access and the question of whether a road should run through the property.

"That was a major choice, the question of how large we are imagining this park to be," Fortier said yesterday. "Once we did come to a vote and we resolved it, many small issues became easy to resolve."

While a majority sided with low-impact uses, no additions of large-scale parking areas and no road through the property, some committee members are not happy with the direction and say they may not be able to endorse the committee report when it goes to the Town Council.

"I wanted to open up more options for people to enjoy," said committee member Christopher Wilkens, also a member of the Town Council. "And I wanted to see some buildings in there. A visitor's center, a barn for tools, an amphitheater in back. I'm not happy with the direction it's taking."

The town-owned property, acquired by eminent domain in the 1970s, was largely forgotten until 2006, when Providence police sergeant Steven Courville and an enthusiastic group of backers suggested the site be turned into a polo field.

At first the plan drew local support, but as residents began looking at the details -- how much land would be cleared and flattened, and the impact on traffic -- the idea lost steam.

Ultimately, the Town Council formed the committee last year to recommend the best uses for the property.

Committee members did unite on some issues Saturday -- that there should be walking trails throughout the property, some clearing in a central meadow area, handicapped-accessible paths in an area near the Town Beach and protection of wetland areas.

"There were a number of issues that we agreed on in terms of the use in certain parts of the farm, but there were key critical issues that we couldn't get consensus on, and most of those revolved around access and the overall use," said committeeman Terence Fleming, also chairman of the Planning Board.

"What I was advocating is keep your options open for diversity of use. If you limit this only to hikers and you limit access ... you're not serving the needs of the entire town. You're serving groups with narrow interests."

Fortier said he would like the committee to submit a report to the council by the beginning of October.

One key element will be recommendations for how to make the plan - - unlike two previous plans that were adopted and then shelved -- a reality. To that end, Fortier said he envisions a recommendation that the property be managed by the town's parks and recreation department while a private, nonprofit group raises money to pay for improvements and upkeep.

The committee's next meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, at Town Hall.

"There were key critical issues that we couldn't get consensus on, and most of those revolved around access and the overall use."

Originally published by Randal Edgar, Journal Staff Writer.

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