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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Town Council meeting - the early review

TC Prez Gentz proposes "evolutionary adjustments"
to state affordable housing law
Shorter but not necessarily sweeter, than most
By Will Collette

There were no surprises tonight, more's the pity. For most of the meeting which went just over two hours, we were treated to a heavy dose of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) agenda on affordable housing, wind energy and, guided by Deputy Dan Slattery, their strange version of transparency in government.

The main surprise for me was how incoherent the CCA's champions (Council Prez Tom Gentz, VP Dan Slattery and Planning Commissar Ruth Platner) were when it was their time at bat.

Affordable Housing. As I had noted in my preview of this meeting, Gentz is carrying water for the CCA and its relentless attack against affordable housing. Gentz read a prepared statement that none of the other Council members (or public) saw before his stilted reading of it. He said he is proposing "evolutionary adjustments" to the state affordable housing law. He would like his ideas to be carefully considered - but on a fast track that would have this Council prepare new state legislation to give Charlestown's General Assembly members by January.

As Gentz delved into his "evolutionary adjustments" to state law, it became clear that this is what he is really proposing as new state legislation:

  • Article 1. Repeal the existing state affordable law and write a new one.
  • Article 2. Under the new law, the state would have no power to require Charlestown to create any new affordable housing.
  • Article 3. Charlestown doesn't care what the rest of the state does.
  • Article 4. Have a nice day.

Gentz repeated many of the old CCA complaints that Charlestown is rural (so leave us alone), doing the best we can (so leave us alone) and besides, our housing prices have dropped so every house north of Route One should be designated as affordable housing. And if we have to create new affordable housing units, let's take our imaginary but enormous stock of distressed properties and make them into affordable housing.

In short, Gentz's "evolutionary adjustment" to the state affordable housing law is sort of like what the Chicxulub meteor 65 million years ago was to the dinosaurs.

It's worth watching the Clerkbase video just to see Affordable Housing Commission Chair Evelyn Smith step up to the podium, and ever so gently and systematically dissect Gentz's totally flawed analysis.

She pointed out that many things Gentz wanted could be achieved by amending the town's Comprehensive Plan and that the Plan is due for review this year anyway.

She agreed that rehabbing existing properties is a great idea, except Charlestown doesn't have enough to make a difference. And she noted that the reason why the state law requires a 30 to 99 year deed restriction on properties converted to affordable housing is to create "a permanent and sustainable stock" of affordable housing, not just the kind of situation we have now where the market has hammered down prices.

Evelyn was nearly finished demolishing all of Gentz's arguments when he abruptly - and rudely - cut her off.

Gentz insisted he be allowed to go ahead and draft a more specific legislative proposal. The Council tentatively allowed that on a 3-1-1 vote (Avedisian voting no and Marge Frank abstaining). This can full of crap has been kicked down the road.

Wind Energy. So now we have a "new" Ordinance 344, the Planning Commission's opus magnus on residential wind power. Ruth Platner stood at the podium for nearly ten minutes and spoke without once addressing the substance or merits of this ordinance.

This is the ordinance's first reading, so it will be advertised by October 24 and taken up at the November Council meeting with a public hearing and likely 3-2 approval vote. The ordinance language was only posted today and is a mess that will have to be re-done. But, for the time being, it is what we have, so you should read it carefully to see where the Planning Commission (and the CCA) want to take us on wind energy.

I will do a separate detailed analysis of this ordinance, but in short, it recycles the language in the old wind ordinance that was repealed and replaced by the total wind ban. The old ordinance language made it difficult, bordering on impossible, for residential sized wind generators to be approved in Charlestown. Ordinance 344  improves on that by a negligible degree. As such, it is a sham and will result in few Charlestown homeowners being able to use this proven technology to reduced their reliance on fossil fuels.

This recycled ordinance actually underscores the point I made last month that the total wind ban was unnecessary because the old ordinance effectively banned wind energy. More on that in the next day or two.

Deputy Dan Slattery, "Jim" and high crimes and misdemeanors. Deputy Dan Slattery, the Council Veep, was the center of a long and uncomfortable stretch of the Council meeting.  He presented the results of his "investigation" of a complaint from an unnamed citizen (let's call him "Jim"). "Jim" harangued Slattery for 20 minutes last month in the Town Hall parking lot with  lurid tales of high crimes and high jinks by a secret, cult-like conspiracy called "The Friends of Ninigret Park."

According to "Jim," this Friends group is an illegal organization engaged in various nefarious schemes involving sums of money ($23). This somehow rises to the level where some people, in "Jim's" opinion, need to be hauled off in handcuffs.

Rather than bring this ridiculous - and already discredited - story to the Town Council, Deputy Dan asked the Town Solicitor if he should investigate. The Town Solicitor said he supposed it was ok if Slattery really wanted to. So Deputy Dan was off and running with his Sherlock Holmes cape and fingerprint set. He interrogated Town Hall staff. According to Deputy Dan, he amassed a two-inch thick collection of paper evidence that led him to conclude that "Jim's" charges were without merit.

Deputy Dan was challenged by Councilors Avedisian and DiBello, but for entirely different reasons. Avedisian asked Slattery why he decided to go off sleuthing on his own, including the interrogating of town staff, when the Council had already set policy against individual Council members going off half-cocked. Slattery looked at the Town Solicitor and said that the town lawyer approved this investigative foray. The Town Solicitor shrugged.

Lisa DiBello, who is "Jim's" only ally on the Town Council, took a different and unusual tack. She wanted to know all about the organizational and tax exempt status of The Friends of Ninigret Park. Funny she should have brought that up, given her own issues with A Ray of Hope.

This mess was more or less sorted out when Council members approved a motion to recognize The Friends of Ninigret Park as a subcommittee of the Economic Improvement Commission. Shame on Slattery for not only overstepping his authority, but for dignifying "Jim's" slanderous charges. The vote on the motion was 4-0, with DiBello abstaining.

Last item for tonight's article - the Council unanimously approved boosting the low-income senior citizen tax exemption at a total cost to the town of $11,000. Councilors Gentz and Slattery said the town should look at the other tax exemptions offered by the town (subject of a seven-part series in Progressive Charlestown) to see if there are other exemptions the town should increase.