Volunteers join forces for rainy day project in Portsmouth

Rain garden installed at Common Fence Point Community Hall

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PORTSMOUTH — Rain, rain, go away. But if you choose to stay, the Common Fence Point Community Hall will be ready for you.

Armed with trowels and shovels and operating heavy equipment, more than 50 volunteers showed up outside the Common Fence Point Improvement Association (CFPIA) building Saturday morning to install a rain garden on the hall’s north side.

The project was a collaboration of CFPIA members and neighbors; the Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District (ERICD), which is a member of the Rhode Island Green Infrastructure Coalition; engineers from the New England Water Environment Association (NEWEA); and other volunteers.

The work is part of CFPIA’s ongoing efforts to transform the community hall into an arts center for the wider community. Plans for the rain garden, however, materialized only recently when ERICD manager Sara Churgin approached CFPIA President Conley Zani after learning the group wanted to incorporate green infrastructure into the renovation project.

Although the rain garden was installed earlier “than we might have otherwise,” Ms. Conley said it didn’t pose any problems since the building renovation work is taking place on the opposite (south) side of the building. 

“This is going to help us manage our water both before and after renovation,” Ms. Zani said. “It’s basically a catch basin for stormwater runoff. They said the goal is to get 50 percent of the water that hits this roof into that garden.”

The rain garden is essentially a gift from the Green Infrastructure Coalition, which has ongoing projects targeting stormwater runoff around Aquidneck Island while also educating the public about the issue. 

“The Van Beuren (Charitable) Foundation had invested in the Green Infrastructure Coalition as well as our community hall, so that’s where the love connection came from,” said Ms. Zani. “Sara came out to sort of vet us and she was looking for a place that would be visible and educational and reach a lot of people, and I think we fit that bill. And, we had an A-plus for enthusiasm.”

“I called Conley and it was a match made in heaven,” said Ms Churgin.

Ms. Zani has a reputation for her ability to recruit local help for any CFPIA project. “Sara and the crew said to me, ‘Can you get volunteers?’ Oh, I can get volunteers,” she said.

Ms. Churgin said she was thrilled with Saturday’s turnout.

“Oh my God — amazing. This is fabulous. The volunteers have been out of this world,” she said.

Locally, volunteers included Dan Woods, Kevin Rocha and David Camara, who spent all last Thursday prepping the site for the installation. Jeff Culpan of Anchor Plumbing helped install a hose bib on the side of the hall to water and care for the garden. Neal Hingorany, a CFPIA trustee and neighbor, acted as the group’s civil engineer.

“He actually did the design; he did the calculations on how deep it should be, and all the drainage,” Ms. Zani said.

Volunteer engineers

There was also a healthy volunteer contingent of engineers from all over New England who are members of NEWEA. As luck would have it, they were holding a conference in Newport and were looking to do a local volunteer project, so Ms. Churgin recruited them.

“This is awesome,” said Janine Burke-Wells, NEWEA president. “This is our very first community service project in conjunction with our spring conference. We move around to every New England state for our spring conference, and this conference was all about Rhode Island.”

Among the NEWEA engineers happy to be pitching in were Marc Weller of Pare Corp. and Ben Stoddard of Kleinfelder, who were busy digging a ditch for a pipe designed to divert roof runoff water to the garden. (They had some help from 10-year-old Jordan Sands Ms. Churgin’s son — who was manning a shovel next to them.)

“Boy, these guys are going to get the bug after this and will want to do it again and again,” Ms. Burke-Wells said.

The mission

Ms. Churgin, who’s also involved in efforts to build a rain garden at Melville School that will be incorporated into an “outdoor classroom,” said her organization’s various projects are all part of a wider mission to educate the public about the consequences of stormwater runoff.

“The idea is to soak up the rain — that’s why there’s this depression (in the garden) — and to capture the stormwater runoff. The impurities get filtered through the soil instead of going out onto the street and out into the bay,” she said.

The District surveyed island homeowners about mitigating water runoff and received about 80 responses, she said. 

“We’ve been using an objective metric system to determine who would be best served by having a rain garden. We’re now interviewing people and looking at properties and seeing what fits and what doesn’t. Then we are going to install eight rain gardens around the island,” she said, adding that some will be located in clearly impaired areas such as the Bailey’s Brook watershed in Middletown. 

The organization is also giving away 48 rain barrels, and will be offering two “partial pervious surfaces” for residential driveways that are susceptible to flooding. “With our residential project, you get either a rain garden, a rain barrel, or the partial-pervious thing,” Ms. Churgin said.

The Common Fence Point Community Hall rain garden, located on a busy street, will include signage explaining the project and why it’s so important.

“All of these are slowly going to educate people on what’s going on and what we can do in our small part to help,” Ms. Churgin said. “My hope is, with the Melville project and then this one on private property, we’ll really get more people in Portsmouth thinking this way.”

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.