May 1, 2014 12:08PM
By NANCY LAVIN
Sun Staff Writer
WESTERLY — Watch Hill Fire District residents resoundingly approved a proposal to grant a conservation easement for Napatree Point to the Watch Hill Conservancy during a meeting Saturday morning at the fire district office.
More than 50 local taxpayers turned out to vote on the easement, which the District Council had previously recommended unanimously. While a few people presented concerns with the proposal, the chorus of “ayes” overwhelmed the naysayers.
The easement will better allow the district to protect the natural beauty and preserve the fragile ecosystem of Napatree Point while still allowing public access, according to the District Council.
“It’s important to keep the benefits of Watch Hill in place, including those of Napatree,” said Frederick B. Whittemore, local resident and president and chairman of the Watch Hill Conservancy.
The district-owned part of Napatree Point covers about 90 percent of the area, and is currently managed by the district and the conservancy through a joint partnership. Under the easement, the district remains the owner of the property, and will continue to pay property taxes and liability insurance associated with that ownership. However, the conservancy will gain some of the rights traditionally held by property owners, including the right of first refusal if the district should seek to sell the land, and the status of “co-owner” in any litigation.
As part of the transaction, the conservancy has promised to set up a fund for legal expenses related to enforcing the easement, taking that responsibility away from the fire district.
“That’s the key,” said Grant Simmons, the district’s park commissioner. “It gives us that layer of protection and ensures that the fire district stays within its original mandate.”
Traditional uses of the property, such as walking, swimming, sunbathing, bird-watching, fishing and boating will continue under the easement unless “unforseen circumstances should arise” that would make changes in access necessary, district officials said. However, new construction such as docks and piers would be banned, as well as unnatural changes to the topography, vegetation and surrounding water.
Council members and residents alike cited a recent draft of the town’s Harbor Management plan, which at one time proposed construction of a public dock on a town-owned lot at Napatree, as clear proof that the easement is necessary. The idea was later removed from the draft.
“We need to maintain the strengths of Watch Hill,” said Whittemore. “Part of that means not allowing other people to come in and screw it up.”
Long-time district resident Adie Von Gontarde Jr. agreed.
“This ensures that it stays exclusive and private,” he said. “We’re lucky to have this and we want to keep it that way. It’s pride of possession.”
While most voters at the meeting shared that point of view, local business owner George Nicholas said he perceived the easement not as a way for the district to maintain independence, but as a loss of rights.
“I’m concerned about us signing over our rights to what we privately own,” he said. “Once we surrender that right, there will no longer be a democratic process because we will have given up that right to a special interest group. There will be no say.”
Whittemore, however, said that “by moving the rights to the conservancy, we keep the land in the strongest possible public mode.”
Another taxpayer, Hatsy Moore, questioned the legality of the easement. “I’m in favor of the conservancy easement as an idea, but I am not in favor of the way it’s being carried out,” Moore said.
“The Watch Hill charter states unequivocally that the parks commission manages this,” she said. “What authority does the Watch Hill Conservancy have to do this?”
According to Moore, Napatree Point is privately owned by local property owners, including her parents, who had a deed that specifically stated that the property owners were in charge of making decisions regarding the area.
However, District Moderator Charles S. Whitman III said the parks commission had already approved the transaction.
“We’re not trying to change your piece, just what’s owned by the fire district,” he said. “It’s not in conflict with the charter at all.”
Despite the doubts expressed at the meeting, Whitman said he was not worried about future objections as the easement moves forward.
Whittemore added that the near unanimous approval indicated a successful implementation.
“Democracy is democracy,” he said. “You want people to have a chance to speak up, but consensus is what keeps a town like this working.”