By DALE P. FAULKNER
Sun Staff Writer
WESTERLY — To better ensure preservation of the ecological attributes of Napatree Point, The Watch Hill Fire District Council is recommending assigning legal rights and responsibilities for protecting the area to the Watch Hill Conservancy.
Voters of the Watch Hill Fire District will be asked to vote on whether a conservation easement should be granted to the conservancy, a federal nonprofit corporation. The meeting is scheduled for Saturday at 9:30 a.m. at the fire district office on Watch Hill Road.
A draft version of the 17-page easement says public access to Napatree will continue to be permitted as long as “public accessibility and use is consistent with the ecological preservation” of the area. A fact sheet developed by District Moderator Charles “Sandy” Whitman III says passive recreation such as swimming, walking, sunbathing, bird-watching, fishing, and boating will continue unchanged unless unforeseen circumstances arise requiring a change in how the area is used.
A proposal to establish a public dock on the town-owned lot on Napatree that had been considered but dropped from a draft version of the town’s Harbor Management Plan is being cited as a reason for why a conservation easement is needed.
“That latest controversy was only one of many over recent years stirred up by a small minority of people who see development of Watch Hill’s natural resources as a goal which should trump the conservation of those resources,” Chaplin Barnes, vice president and secretary of the conservancy, wrote in the August issue of The Watch Hill Conservator, the group’s newsletter.
The Harbor Management Plan, developed by the Harbor Management Commission, will set policy for all of the town’s waterways once it is adopted by the Town Council and state authorities. The council is expected to begin a review of the plan in September.
“There is no reason that the Watch Hill community, whether the district or the Watch Hill Conservancy, should have to expend the energy, time and money, over and over, to debate the rationale for maintaining the conservation values of Napatree against various inappropriate developmental challenges. The district can very easily take legal action to discourage these threats,” Whitman says in the fact sheet.
The conservation easement would pertain to the portion of Napatree Point owned by the district — about 90 percent of the more than mile-long spit that separates Little Narragansett Bay from Block Island Sound — and to the portion owned by the conservancy. The Fire District Council hopes that smaller sections held by private owners, the town, and the Harriet C. Moore Foundation will also be placed under the easement, Whitman said.
The district-owned portion of Napatree is currently managed jointly by the district and the conservancy. If the easement is established, the conservancy has pledged to establish a fund to cover legal expenses that might be incurred from monitoring and enforcing the easement. Under the easement, the district would retain its ownership status and would continue to be financially responsible for property taxes and liability insurance. The conservancy would be granted the right of first refusal should the district ever sell Napatree, and the conservancy would be “treated as a co-owner of Napatree in any litigation relating to Napatree.”
Under the easement, certain uses and activities at Napatree would not be permitted, including the construction of new structures, including docks and piers.
Unnatural changes to the topography and flora and the use of fungicides would also be banned.
Actions causing changes to the waters surrounding Napatree would also be prohibited.
The operation of “mechanized vehicles whose use would adversely affect the wildlife or the habitat of Napatree” would also be prohibited, but the district would retain the right to access Napatree by vehicle as well as the right to modify the remains of Fort Mansfield and to manage the beach and dunes.
According to the easement draft, Napatree is a habitat for 154 species of birds including the piping plover, which is listed as threatened in this part of its breeding range. Other species are on the state’s list of threatened species or species of concern.