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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Planning Commission to craft “advisory” on YMCA camp deal

TODAY: Are Charlestown taxpayers about to be ripped off?
By Will Collette

Tonight, at its Wednesday, December 28 meeting, the Charlestown Planning Commission is scheduled to take up the task of crafting an “advisory" opinion for the Town Council on the proposed $475,000+ town purchase of the derelict YMCA camp on Watchaug Pond.

This camp had been proposed as the site for a beautifully designed conservation development, but NIMBY opposition killed that idea. Instead, the YMCA proposes to sell the land to the town. But the town will not get to own it.

Tax dollars will buy the land, but the private Charlestown Land Trust will take title to it (though the town will pay for its maintenance). The principal beneficiary will be the Sonquipaug Neighborhood, immediately to the south of the camp.

The mostly part-time residents in that neighborhood have been using the camp as a de facto extension of their backyards.

It is hard to see how the Planning Commission can carry out their task with objectivity. Planning Commissar Ruth Platner played a huge role in killing the conservation development that had been proposed for the site. Platner also wrote the proposal to the state DEM for a $367,000 grant. That DEM grant, by the way, is also your tax dollars at work.

By the way, when Platner helped to kill the proposed conservation development, she said she felt the project was wrong because Charlestown needed more “active” recreational land. Yet the proposal she wrote and which RIDEM has agreed to fund restricts the land use to passive recreation only

I am sure Commissar Platner will make it clear to her colleagues that her prior actions should not be considered and that she, of course, will recuse herself from a decision that she is largely responsible for putting before the Commission. She certainly cannot claim she is objective on the merits of this proposal.

According to the package of material on this proposed purchase, the town is indeed being asked to put up the $475,000 needed to meet the YMCA’s asking price.

The property is currently being carried on the tax assessor’s list at $1,137,700. Of course, the YMCA does not pay property tax since it is a tax-exempt organization.

But what is that land really worth? According to the current assessment data, the 14 buildings on the site “contribute” $466,000 to the value of the property.

Demolition is not cheap
Yet those buildings are actually a liability, as they must all be demolished – although they may decide to save one and rehab it, presumably at town expense.

The land value is set at $671,200 which seems reasonable enough given the waterfront setting. But the buildings will cost tens of thousands to tear down and the old cesspools and who knows what else will mean a substantial clean-up cost.

When you buy a decrepit piece of property, don’t you usually get to knock money off the purchase price to cover the cost of things that are in terrible disrepair? The YMCA camp is definitely a “fixer-upper.” I think that a fair price, after the costs of demolition and clean-up, should be no more than $500,000.

Removing old cesspools isn't cheap either
So why are taxpayers, through the state DEM and the Town of Charlestown, paying the YMCA $842,000, plus the cost of demolition, clean-up and maintenance?

In my opinion, this proposal is a very bad deal for Charlestown taxpayers. The YMCA’s asking price is too high by at least $342,000. The benefits of this land purchase would be very limited, going mainly to the non-resident property owners in the Sonquipaug neighborhood.

Even though the Charlestown Land Trust is going through the motions of trying to raise money, will they – and the property owners in Sonquipaug – pay their fair share?

What, exactly, do Charlestown tax payers get for their money?

Irate non-resident property owners stormed the Town Council meeting on December 12 claiming that a proposal to give residents a $1000 Homestead tax break was “divisive,” and “class war.”

Ruth Platner was one of the people who stepped to the microphone to say “amen” to the complaints of the non-residents and to condemn granting resident taxpayers some relief. But when it comes to adding yet more property to the over 50% of Charlestown land that is either tax-exempt or tax-favored, she doesn’t mind spending your taxpayer dollars.