My inspection sticker was about to expire, so I made an appointment at a garage on East Main Road in Middletown. Since it was going to be a two-hour wait for my car, I grabbed my binoculars and headed to the valley, with a brief stop at the French bakery along the way.
Kempenaar Valley, now officially called Valley Park, is a green oasis situated behind the shopping plaza, bordered on the west by High Street, on the east by Bailey Brook, and on the south by Kempenaar’s Clambake Club. This 45-acre open space was for many decades the site of Boulevard Nurseries before the Kempenaar family sold it to Middletown in 2004.
“The total purchase price was $3 million with the town of Middletown taking fee title and the Aquidneck Land Trust, the [Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management], and the city of Newport all contributing a portion,” said Alex Churman, stewardship director of the Aquidneck Land Trust.
“While the land was a nursery and farm, it was very much at risk of being lost to development,” he said. “You can imagine the location right next to the shopping center and large residential neighborhood made it very attractive to developers.”
Saving this land as green space was a major collaborative effort. Now protected by a conservation easement held jointly by ALT, RIDEM, and Newport, Churman said, “The park is really a perfect example of multi-faceted conservation property.
“It has recreational use with the trails, but also protects the Bailey Brook watershed, which is part of the drinking supply,” he said. “It has grassland, trees, and wetland habitat for wildlife.”
I started my walk at the park entrance behind the plaza, where a large sign designates the trails and guidelines. I took the left fork and headed downhill, determined to find as many birds as I could and keep track of them on “ebird,” an excellent app offered by Cornell to gather bird data.
The hard-packed gravel trails wind through beautiful fields of tall grasses mixed with flowers, like common milkweed, daisy fleabane, red clover, purple cow vetch and yellow hawkweed. The birds tend to nest on the edges, but they spend a lot of time feeding on seeds and bugs in these fields.
I was hoping to find the uncommon savannah sparrow, so I paid close attention to all the LBJs (little brown jobs) that I came across. Twenty-three song sparrows and too many house sparrows later, I found three savannahs singing in the south end of the field.
It was a busy morning in the bird world. Overall, I saw 21 different species in the park, with the highest numbers being redwinged blackbird, American robin, American goldfinch, mourning dove, and the ubiquitous song sparrow. I also heard lots of nestlings cheeping and begging, and saw harried parents bringing food back and forth to quiet the broods.
As you walk along the trails, you will notice 11 newly established groves of young trees. In 2016, the Middletown Tree Commission initiated a landscaping design and planting management plan for the park. Commission members Alan Kirby and Chuck DiTucci generously donated their time and landscaping expertise to create the plan and develop a list of preferred tree species.
The town raised funds from a variety of sources, and the first 128 trees were planted in 2017, followed by 193 trees in 2018 and 65 more last spring.
The species selection is diverse; the first planting alone included over 40 species, including natives like red maple and tulip trees mixed with ornamentals like dawn redwood and Japanese katsura. There are approximately 70 species growing there now after Phase 3 was completed.
I was curious how the trees were chosen, and why they included both native and non-native species, so I reached out to Karen Day, chairperson of the Tree Commission.
“The commission wanted to support native tree species, but also wanted diversity with a variety of color through the seasons,” she said. “The wide variety of trees honors the history of the site as a nursery for ornamental plants and trees, and as the trees grow, they will help block the view of the commercial buildings on the north end, making the park even more of an oasis.”
For more information on these trees, how to request a tree, and the memorial tree program, visit the town’s website.
You can’t talk about the valley without talking about water quality and stormwater runoff. Bailey Brook runs 4.8 miles from wetlands north of Oliphant Road, past the airport and commercial areas, through the valley to Green End Pond, which is part of Newport’s public water supply. Along the way, the brook water becomes contaminated with high levels of lead, phosphorous and bacteria due to agricultural and stormwater runoff.
Stormwater flowing over impervious surfaces, such as roads, parking lots, and roof tops, picks up pollutants like oil, fertilizer, pesticides, sediments, trash and animal waste. To help mitigate this type of pollution getting into the brook, the state has built infrastructure in the valley that includes two ponds built in the 1990s that catch runoff from High Street, and the former nursery, and a newer, separate, wet vegetated treatment system that filters runoff from a larger area, including West Main Road at Two Mile Corner.
The treatment system is filled with water-loving plants, like cattail and pickerel weed, that provide habitat for birds, such as common yellowthroats and red-winged blackbirds.
If you are interested in learning more about how to mitigate stormwater runoff on your own property, visit the Providence Stormwater Innovation Center site at stormwaterinnovation.org or dem.ri.gov/ri-stormwater-solutions.
After my lovely morning ramble through the valley, I re-entered the busy world of East Main Road, only to discover that my car needed new brakes and that it wouldn’t be ready for another three hours.
And people wonder why I prefer nature over technology?