NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — The future of the town’s library played a large role in events that took place in Narragansett in 2020, shaping the town’s leadership for the next two years.
The issue of relocating the library to the former Belmont market property has simmered and at times boiled over for two years, and voters were finally heard on the matter in November.
And it wouldn’t be Narragansett without controversy over rental properties. This year, the Town Council moved to limit how many students can live together in a rental house. The move caused an uproar with landlords and University of Rhode Island renters.
Other issues took attention away from the daily onslaught of COVID-19 news, including a proposal to open parts of wildlife preserve to hunting. Residents whose homes bordered the lands in question were less than pleased.
There were bright spots in town as well, such as at the schools. In a year when distance learning became the norm, Narragansett’s elementary school earned a coveted national honor.
Election flips town council
Two Town Council members who were consistently against using the Belmont building as a library felt the wrath of voters in November. Incumbents Rick Lema and Jill Lawler were voted out. And Council President Matthew Mannix chose to run for a state senate seat instead of seeking re-election to the council. Mannix lost the senate race.
Narragansett voters elevated councilor Jesse Pugh, a staunch advocate of the library and of proceeding with the Belmont site, to council president. They re-elected Patrick Murray and put two new faces on the non-partisan council, Ewa Dzwierzynski and Deborah Kopech.
In perhaps the biggest turnaround, they voted to return former president Susan Cicilline Buonanno to the council. Buonanno had sued the town as a part of the Love Your Library organization in a effort to move the project forward, saying the 2016 referendum voters passed to spend up to $5.8 million on a library was “the will of the people.”
Voters in 2020 also said they were tired of the council meetings that frequently erupted into shouting matches between councilors and the public and among council members. Some residents also wanted the council to reinstate the public comment period at the start of its meetings, which the 2018-20 council moved to take place at the end of often hours-long sessions.
Library saga continues
In a packed Kent County courtroom on Jan. 17, Superior Court Judge Jeffrey A. Lanphear allowed a lawsuit to proceed against the town of Narragansett related to efforts by the council to sell the former Belmont/IGA market building, which the town bought in 2018, instead of turning it into a new library.
Much of the hearing involved both sides arguing whether Love Your Library and the other plaintiffs had legal standing to sue the town.
Attorney for the town Andrew Berg argued that allowing the plaintiffs legal standing would set a bad precedent, in that any individual or group aggrieved by any decision of the Town Council could then sue.
Matthew Oliverio, lawyer for Love Your Library, said the group’s members had been involved for years in planning for the new library site at the Belmont and that their “mission” was changed by the council’s decision to sell the building in early 2019.
Buonanno said the court’s decision was a victory for the residents of Narragansett.
In June, Lanphear ruled that Buonanno would be able to collect signatures in order to place a petition on the November ballot that, if passed, would block a sale of the Belmont site. In March 2019, the Town Council voted to mark the initiative petition as invalid, preventing it from being placed on the ballot.
The library news came as the existing library building had to contend with a second straight year of reduced funding from the town.
The council voted 4-1 to approve the 2020-21 budget, which kept the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library’s share of town funding the same as the previous year at about $400,000. But that was down significantly from the more than $800,000 the town gave to the library in 2018-19.
In August, library project advocates announced they had reached an agreement that would allow the Belmont building’s sole commercial tenant, Pier Liquors, to stay at its Pier Marketplace site.
The reported deal made Aug. 14 surprised town councilors, who said they had not heard about it.
The sides agreed in principle to a long-term lease that would allow the library and liquor store to both operate in the Pier Marketplace for at least the next five years.
In June, Pier Liquors owner Debra Siravo Manni had called for a compromise between her family’s business and the library advocates.
At that time, Manni said the parties had met and agreed to the concept of a long-term lease, and that Buonanno indicated she supported a compromise.
In November, Narragansett residents approved two library-focused voter initiatives. One prohibits any sale of the Belmont building parcel without voter approval. Another directs the town to issue the $5.8 million bond passed in 2016 to start renovation of the Belmont building to house the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library.
The new Town Council, with Buonanno, Pugh and Murray seated, acted at its first meeting Dec. 7 to re-ignite the library project. Buonanno also announced that the lawsuits against the former council, filed by Gilbane Corp., Love Your Library and Friends of the Library, had been withdrawn with the change of leadership in town.
Rental homes come under scrutiny
In January, the Town Council voted unanimously to place a 60-day moratorium on new home construction, responding to resident complaints of rental homes that house dozens of tenants in dorm-style arrangements.
The issue has been ongoing for many years, with off-season property owners eager to fill the demand for rentals by University of Rhode Island students. Neighbors who are year-round residents complain that it’s a quality of life issue for them.
The council amended the measure to allow owners of existing homes to make repairs and modifications, after some complaints from property owners that halting all work was too restrictive.
The next month, the town scaled back the moratorium after facing a lawsuit. The change exempted any new construction or remodeling of homes with four or fewer bedrooms from the moratorium.
Then in July, the Planning Board recommended the council not pass a proposed ordinance change that would cap the number of students that can live in a rental house at three.
The board listened to more than two hours of public comment attended by more than 200 people and received more than 100 items of written testimony.
In August, the council approved setting a three-student limit to rental houses in Narragansett, a move preceded by hours of testimony from those on both sides of the issue.
Opposing the ordinance were landlords, property managers and others who said that so-called quality-of-life issues such as arrests, nuisance reports and orange sticker violations had significantly decreased in the past several years.
The result of the change would be higher taxes, more children in schools and an inflated school budget, others argued.
University of Rhode Island students spoke out against the measure, saying it would not solve quality of life issues and would raise the cost of housing for students, other renters and homeowners.
Proponents of the change complained that single-family home ownership has been degraded over the past several decades.
NES is Blue Ribbon School
Narragansett Elementary School is among the tops in the country, being named in October as a 2020 National Blue Ribbon School along with nearby Kingston Hill Academy.
The U.S. Department of Education selected the schools, along with Charlestown Elementary School, as three of just 367 schools nationwide for the honor, which measures each school’s overall academic performance or progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups.
Now in its 38th year, the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program has bestowed almost 10,000 awards to more than 9,000 schools, with some schools winning multiple awards.
Schools are eligible for nomination after five years, and up to 420 schools may be nominated each year.
The 317 public and 50 non-public school recipients of the 2020 National Blue Ribbon Schools Awards were honored at a virtual ceremony on Nov. 12 and 13. Typically, educators are invited to a national event in the nation’s capital, but that was canceled this year because of COVID-19.
Administrators at all three Rhode Island winners were enthused and proud of the national distinction bestowed on their schools.
NES marked the honor by having a day for students and teachers to wear blue and show their pride, Principal Lisa Wilson said. Schools also received a banner to hang in their buildings as well as a plaque.
Wilson also credited support from the community for the award. The award is a first for all of the three Rhode Island Schools chosen.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, schools are recognized for the prestigious award in one of two performance categories, based on all student scores, subgroup student scores and graduation rates: exemplary high performing schools and exemplary achievement gap closing schools.
Hunting changes draw opposition
Over the summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service heeded objections from residents and local officials and dropped plans to allow hunting with firearms in some areas of the John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge.
However the plan does provide for hunting and fishing opportunities at the 563-acre refuge, which straddles South Kingstown and Narragansett and portions of the Narrow River.
The final plan prohibits hunting in the Mumford Hunt Unit, a fragmented refuge area near both Narragansett Elementary School and the William O’Neil Bike Path, and bordered by residential homes.
It was concerns from abutters and Narragansett Police Chief Sean Corrigan that prompted Fish and Wildlife to eliminate the Mumford Unit from hunting.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also scrapped plans for a hunters’ parking lot on Crest Avenue for the Stedman Hunt Unit in South Kingstown, a large tract of land off Route 1 and behind both the state District and Traffic courts and The Prout School.
Hunters within the Stedman Unit must follow state regulations for deer, fall turkey and waterfowl. The Service also has put in place a 200-foot archery safety zone and a 500-foot firearm safety zone on parts of the refuge adjacent to homes.
The prospect of hunters with firearms operating close to neighborhoods concerned residents of both towns who spoke out in June against the draft plans.
A 1969 Narragansett town ordinance prohibits the use of firearms except at ranges for rifle or pistol shooting that meet the requirements of the police department. The new federal plan acknowledges this with respect to deer hunting.
Archery hunting for deer is allowed, but limited by the number of permits granted. No hunting is allowed within 200 feet of a dwelling or within 100 feet of a public trail.