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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth - Part 1

I thought I was done writing about the YMCA land use change request. After all, the facts laid out in my previous posts on this topic were mostly echoed in the hearings and, I believe, leave little doubt of what the correct outcome should be.

Image: Maggie Smith /
Then I received a copy of the frantic email from Joanne D’Alcomo and read the recent half-page ad in the Charlestown Press.

I must say that they are fairly well written ... for propaganda, with a skillful mix of half-truths, distortions, and psychological ploys. In this series of articles I’ll do a favor for Joanne (you’re welcome) and reproduce her email (in bold). I also provide some comments along the way because I just can’t resist.

I am a Charlestown homeowner and I am writing to bring to your attention an issue that the Charlestown Town Council will decide on Monday, May 9th, at 7 p.m. Town Hall that affects Charlestown’s rural character, its scenic beauty and one of its most prominent natural features:  Watchaug Pond.

There certainly is an opportunity here - the land is a campground which had a history of up to 200 people occupying it at a time during the summer with the resulting impact on the Pond, wetlands, etc. If the proposal is approved it will lock up most of the land in a protected trust while limiting the impact to 10 families. So the proposed change sound like a very positive one, to me, for our rural character, scenic beauty and Watchaug Pond.

 The Town Council is scheduled to vote on an extraordinary proposal to change the zoning of a single parcel of land in the Town’s Comprehensive Zoning Plan for the sole purpose of clearing the way for an individual to build new condos or homes on the shores of Watchaug Pond on a tract of land now protected from residential development.

“Extraordinary” - one of those psychological trigger words that really means “only happens occasionally” but evokes emotions of “should never happen” because of how it is often used by people who want to block something. “Extrardinary” can also be code for “fixing something that wrong”, a more appropriate use in this case as I explain further below.

If the Town Council does take this step, it would be a rare exercise of the Town Council’s power to change the zoning map for one parcel, and for one person. Ordinarily, the Town’s Comprehensive Zoning Plan is only changed at periodic intervals, and after extensive review of the plan as a whole, and after input from the public and others.

“Rare” - see my comments for “extraordinary”. “for one parcel and for one person” Well, duh, it's a change request. Do we expect Mr. Veazey and the YMCA to make the request for other people too?

At stake are 27 ½ acres of land zoned for years as “open space/recreation.” The Camp Fire Girls started a camp there in 1946, and the YMCA bought the property in 1985 for $250,000.

So this camp is designated open space/recreation (OSR). Since we have heard how the Comprehensive Plan should be rarely changed then we must expect that it is consistent and other camps in town are the same, right? Ok, so there is Camp Davis on the shore of Schoolhouse Pond. That happens to be zoned Residential 3 Acres, similar to the R-2 designation that Mr. Veazey and the YMCA is requesting for their camp land. Then there is the Boy Scout Camp on the shore of Pasquiset Pond. Oops, that is zoned Residential 3 Acres also. But yet, we hear that the Comprehensive Plan should not be changed despite this inconsistency. I don’t get it. This situation seems to define the "extraordinary" circumstances when the Comprehensive Plan should be changed.

The YMCA has now decided to sell the parcel, which represents more than half of the land on the shores of Watchaug Pond that the Y has used over the years for its Camp Watchaug.

“more than half of the land on the shores of Watchaug Pond” - another good psychological ploy because the reader starts concluding it is half of something big before the sentence is finished. But the sentence is not talking about ”half of the shoreline on Watchaug Pong”, just half of the land that the YMCA owns. An extremely small portion of the overall pond shoreline. So it's technically correct but designed to deceive, to get residents to grab their torches and pitchforks and storm the Town Hall.

A resident of East Greenwich, who does not now own the property, is asking the Town Council to change the zoning to “residential” because he wants to buy the property and build condos or homes. 

This is another nice psychological ploy, casting Mr. Veazey as the evil outsider after she introduces herself in the email as a Charlestown landowner. But Joanne is the one with the Boston accent and I guess she doesn’t have room to include that she is a Massachusetts resident or that Mr. Veazey, the person with the contract to buy the land owns a house on the shore of Watchaug Pond, near the YMCA camp, in addition to his home in East Greenwich. If we're picking outsiders I know which one to point at.

I'll talk about condos later in this article. 

The Charlestown Land Trust, a non-profit organization, has evaluated the 27 ½ acre site and ranks it highly worthy of protection.  The land contains a variety of habitats and could be a nature sanctuary with walking trails.
The Land Trust has urged the Town Council to vote against rezoning.

These are interesting claims about the Land Trust. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to get written confirmation of this glowing assessment of the property. In a carefully worded reply to my inquiry, their stated reason for urging a vote against the rezoning is that they trust the Planning Commission and if the Planning Commission votes against it then they recommend the same for the Town Council. That hardly seems like the thorough independent analysis that Joanne implies. I guess the Land Trust believes Town Council should report to the Planning Commission rather than the way it is now.

This is getting too long for a reasonable attention span so I'll continue with Part 2 of Ms. D'Alcomo's email on Tuesday.

Author: Tom Ferrio