By JOHN HOWELL Vincent Gebhart isn't put off by the phone call 10 minutes into Sunday's Patriots-Jets game. Sure, he says, he has time to visit the Dawley Farm property the city acquired for open space in 1999. "How about meeting at 2:30?" He calls back
Vincent Gebhart isn’t put off by the phone call 10 minutes into Sunday’s Patriots-Jets game. Sure, he says, he has time to visit the Dawley Farm property the city acquired for open space in 1999.
“How about meeting at 2:30?”
He calls back in barely two minutes. Marsha Cruciani plans to come along, too.
The two connected during the 2020 campaign for the Ward 9 City Council seat. Gebhart was in a stiff Democratic primary with four candidates vying for the nomination. He canvassed the ward and didn’t let a lawn sign of one of those opponents stop him from knocking on Cruciani’s door.
She recalls what her late husband, Henry, said once Gebhart left. “So long as someone keeps a leash on him, he’s going to be good.”
Cruciani and Gebhart share a love of the outdoors. Even as she approaches her 80th birthday, Cruciani dons her hiking pants, long socks and hiking boots – you can’t be too careful when it comes to ticks and poison ivy – at a moment’s notice. She and her husband climbed all the Northeast peaks over 4,000.
Gebhart enjoys taking his kids on hikes, although it occasionally requires carrying his 3-year-old daughter, Arlie, on his shoulders.
“It’s like a 40-pound pack,” he says.
Arlie wasn’t along for Sunday’s trek, nor was her older brother, Jack.
The purpose of the outing was to walk a portion of the 63-acre property that is the subject of a resolution preserving the land as open space in “perpetuity,” which approved by the council in late August and signed by the mayor last week. It would seem such a resolution would be uncalled for, as the city brought the land from the heirs of Jesse Dawley as open space for $430,000 on Jan. 13, 1999. However, there’s no knowing what the future could bring. Might the land be needed to a school; could a road be built through it, or if the city was desperate, might it be sold to a developer?
Those are the kind of questions that worry Cruciani, a member of the Warwick Land Trust.
Since its acquisition as open space, little has been done to give public access to the property that borders the south side of Cowesett Road after it starts its climb to Route 2 after crossing Interstate 95. A dirt road showing little sign of use enters the site from Cowesett Road. It’s hidden by overgrowth, making it difficult to see for eastbound traffic on Cowesett Road. Cruciani points to vines climbing what may have been a gatepost at one time.
“See how hairy they are,” she says, “that’s poison ivy.”
Fifty feet beyond, a half-dozen trees bear giant red Xs on their trunks. At one time the location was considered as parking for the trails that lace the property. The site appears to be relatively easy to develop for a half-dozen vehicles, but the issue is the intersection with Cowesett Road, seemingly a recipe for an accident as it is hidden by a curve. Preferable access is from a lot approved for development by Fisher Homes. In approving the development of six homes, Fisher deeded more than three acres of mostly wetlands to the city as well as a 30-foot easement to the adjoining Dawley property.
Further on, the road dips as it comes to a small stream. There’s no bridge. It’s shallow and rocks make for an easy crossing. Gebhart holds back the limb from an overhanging sapling. Cruciani with her dual walking sticks makes it across easily.
As the road climbs, a white PVC pipe used to do perk tests contrasts sharply against the tawny undergrowth. The pipes attest to consideration of development of the site by heirs of Jesse Dawley.
Gebhart pauses, scrolls through his cell phone, which he hands over.
“Because of my sister’s and my goodwill and intent for the City of Warwick, we are hoping the City will recognize this open space and will honor both our grandfather, Jesse P. Dawley, Sr., and our father, Jesse P. Dawley Jr., who nurtured this land as farmers all of their lives, and officially designate the land as ‘Jesse Dawley Memorial Forest,’” reads the email from Priscilla Michaud of Waterford, Vermont.
It continues, “During the colonial era, a pound existed within this property known as ‘Cobb’s Pound.’ Whenever British ships were spotted in East Greenwich Bay from our homestead hill, a cannon would be fired to warn the local residents to hide in the pound with their livestock, away from ravaging British sailors. The pound is a naturally formed cleft in the land and was most likely enclosed by a wooden fence. I was shown this place by my grandfather as a little girl and told this story.”
“My sister and I have fond memories of riding on horseback through these woods, down Cowesett Road and then to Folly’s Landing, where we would take our horses for a swim in the summertime. I couldn’t imagine riding a horse down Cowesett Road today!”
The email makes for an extraordinary connection between the days of the Revolutionary War, a time when much of Warwick was farmland, and today, with aircraft making their final approach to Green Airport overhead and the distant hum of traffic. Yet, here’s this unscarred woodland that steps into a different era.
It’s little wonder that Gebhart shares Cruciani’s desire to ensure it is preserved.
“I was concerned that the authors of the Comprehensive Plan went through the effort to point out that more work needs to be done to preserve this land, and despite the plan being published in 2014, nothing had been done yet. I regularly enjoy the beautiful scenery and trails in Dawley and felt it was critically important to ensure that this land is preserved for all to enjoy in perpetuity,” Gebhart writes in a release.
Since issuing the release, Gebhart has meet with City Planner Thomas Kravitz. He said they are exploring how best to preserve the land since it is questionable whether a conservation easement issued by the city to itself is best. If that proves to be the case, Gebhart will be back with another resolution to make sure preservation of the land as open space is airtight. This could be the first of other resolutions for other open space sites named in the Comprehensive Plan.