Saving Conimicut Salt Marsh before Council

Warwick Beacon Online
Thu, May 04 06

During the Colonial Era, ocean-going ships docked in Mill Cove, offloading goods and materials - perhaps even slaves - that were freighted up West Shore Road to various destinations throughout New England. Now the entrance to the cove has been cut off to large vessels by a spit of sand that continues to shift with wind and tide. The cove adjoins another piece of Warwick's contribution to the local eco-system in a 10-acre salt marsh in Conimicut that helps filter pollutants before they can reach Narragansett Bay.

Preserving the marsh has become one of the priorities of the Warwick Land Trust, made up of nine members, each representing one of the city's nine wards. Recently, they voted unanimously to support the initiative that includes the receipt of a grant from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management that pledges to contribute up to $100,000 for the project.

But the grant offer, which expires in November, requires matching funds from the city. The trust, along with members of the Mill Cove Conservancy, have planned a formal presentation before the City Council Monday night, a prerequisite for the council to consider approving funds that would be drawn from open space bond money. Council President Donald Torres predicted the request would be endorsed by a majority of his colleagues.

"It's very unique and it's valuable," said Leo Garrity, chairman of the Land Trust, describing the ecological benefits of preserving the marsh. The property, he added, marks the location where the Buckeye Brook - one of the state's most productive areas for herring runs - empties into Narragansett Bay. The marsh is also part of the city's natural landscape already used for recreational purposes.

Garrity said that the money the Land Trust and the Conservancy raise would be applied to buying lots abutting the marsh to prevent developers from building on the land. With advances in septic system technology and the installation of sewers in the area, the existence of the Conimicut Point marsh is facing long-term challenges.

"The marsh is part of broader recreational and environmental connection between [Conimicut] Point, Mill Cove, Buckeye Brook and [Conimicut] Village," William Derrig said in prepared remarks. The president of the Conservancy added: "These assets are important both to the local residents and those in the extended community who utilize them on a daily basis. By acquiring the marsh, we preserve an important element of this connection and ensure that the overall value to the community continues to be realized."

Acknowledging that even $200,000 wouldn't be enough to do what they have in mind, Garrity said that Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) has joined the cause, by seeking an additional $325,000 in federal funds. The money would be part of a broad expression of support that includes Save the Bay, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, the University of Rhode Island and Gov. Don Carcieri.

With the start of hurricane season just weeks away, Garrity said the marsh has already served the area in the event by reducing the potential damage from cataclysmic storms. The marsh absorbs hundreds of thousands of gallons of storm water runoff.

Without it, Garrity said, local streets would be flooded after even moderate rains.

In a detailed PowerPoint presentation the Conservancy prepared, slide after slide emphasize the ecological value of the marsh. Providing natural filtration of the water is a perfect example. Plants consume nitrogen and replace it with oxygen.

Land values will also rise if they acquire the property they said. A reduction in the density of development is a major goal of the city's Comprehensive Plan.

"Why purchase when the land is 'un-buildable'?" Derrig said. "Although technology may improve to allow a few properties to be built upon, the current owners have ownership and that conveys rights," Derrig continued.

"We acknowledge that and want to acquire the land so that the current owners receive a fair compensation and so that we can have certainty in our planning and implementing," said Derrig. "This approach also puts us in a mode of working with the neighborhood instead of fighting within the system over whether a piece of property is buildable or not. We believe this approach is the most productive for all of us in both the short and long terms," he said.

Legislation supporting the use of open space bond money for the project was sponsored by Councilman Steve Merolla (D-Ward 9) and co-sponsored by Councilmen Joseph J. Solomon (D-Ward 4) and John DelGiudice (D-Ward 5).