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Thursday, January 19, 2012

What do open space advocates have against recreation?

The piers that will support the new pavilion
at the town beach.
The sparring over the beach pavilions exposed a fault line between those who think open space should be enjoyed recreationally and those who think open space is pristine wilderness that should remain untouched.

By Linda Felaco

This land is your land, Part 6

Part 1: The Platner Principle
Part 2: Reforming the Planning Commission
Part 3: Torturing the beach facilities project to death
Part 4: The most powerful force in the Universe
Part 5: Open space dirt for sale

Charlestown, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a beach community. So you’d think anything that would make our beaches more pleasant for both residents and our tens of thousands of summer visitors would be an easy sell.

But you’d be wrong.

The heated battle to approve putting the beach facilities before the voters in a referendum, and the referendum itself, were defining moments in framing the contest over Charlestown’s priorities for both its financial and natural resources.

There was very little of our famed town “harmony” on display at the April 11, 2011, meeting where the Town Council voted to put a referendum before the voters to authorize a bond to build the beach pavilions. The pavilions, according to both the town solicitor and the bond counsel, could have been paid for in part with the funds available in our already-funded Open Space Recreation bond, yet we took on the entire cost of the project as new debt in a bad economy after a punishing revaluation that shifted the tax burden to lower income groups and left the as-yet-unfunded $2 million open space bond intact. Why?

The answer can be found in the Clerkbase recording of the Town Council meeting; the minutes leave out key details and completely neutralize any hints of emotionality. At that meeting, Stephen Hoff took to the podium as a “Person Wishing to Be Heard” to discuss the issue of road repairs that were supposed to have been bonded but weren’t. In his closing remarks, he gave a warning about the beach pavilions, stating that the “Open Space interests” would defeat the beach pavilion proposal if they thought it would diminish the available funds in the open space bond.

Later, during the hearing on the beach pavilions, it was readily apparent that some speakers had never even visited the town beaches and had no idea what the current facilities were like. Leo Mainelli asked Parks and Recreation Director Jay Primiano about food concessions, apparently unaware that mobile food concessions are already offered at both town beaches. Mainelli also questioned Primiano’s assertion during his presentation that the new facilities would increase revenues, raising the old canard about the beaches already being full to capacity.
What we've been putting up with till now.
The old Blue Shutters pavilion is no more.

Mr. Mainelli appeared to be basing his judgment of how many people visit the beaches on the amount of traffic on East Beach Road. However, as Planning Commission Chair Ruth Platner stated at the December 28 Planning Commission meeting in reference to the defeated conservation development proposed for the old YMCA camp on Watchaug Pond, a 10-home subdivision generates 80 car trips per day. So it’s a safe bet that a fair amount of all that traffic on East Beach Road that the East Beachers are always complaining about is the East Beachers themselves.

Primiano explained that while parking is often at near-capacity on weekends and holidays, it generally runs about one-third capacity on weekdays and that with the state raising parking fees at the state beaches, more people might want to use the town beaches.

Mr. Hoff then took to the podium again to ask the Town Council to guarantee that no open space money would be used for the beach pavilions. Council President Tom Gentz stated that it would not be his preference because then we’d be “sorrily sad” if we missed out on future open space opportunities because we didn’t have that money available. Though Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero had stated at the August 10, 2010, Town Council meeting in connection with the potential purchase of Larry LeBlanc’s 81-acre property off Route 1 that land purchases over $50,000 have to be approved by the voters anyway, so presumably a new bond could be approved at the same time a vote was being taken on the purchase, the same way it was proposed for the beach pavilions.

Frank Glista, chair of the Economic Improvement Commission (and treasurer of the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee), then took to the podium to explain that his recollection from when the Open Space Recreation bond was authorized was that it was to be used equally for both open space and recreation, and that out of a total of $5 million that was authorized, $3 million has been spent on open space and only $70,000 on recreation.
Why on earth would anyone want decent bathrooms
when they could have open space instead.

Councilor Greg Avedisian stated that he couldn’t see how a reasonable person wouldn’t think that the beach facilities were a viable use of the Open Space Recreation bond. After all, as he pointed out, it’s not as though we were talking about putting up an Atlantic City–style boardwalk; the beaches are currently so undeveloped that they qualify as open space.

Councilor Dan Slattery then stated that the Charlestown Land Trust had informed him that they had several unspecified purchases in mind that they were planning to ask the town for money for. Why the Land Trust should get to pick which projects are funded and not the taxpayers who are actually paying for them was an unasked question. And why should the Land Trust be the sole beneficiary of our tax largesse and not, say, the Nature Conservancy or any other conservation organization?

An irate Cliff Vanover then took to the podium stating that Faith Labossiere—whose husband, Roe Labossiere, is a founding member of the Land Trust—was solely responsible for getting the open space bond passed, that she didn’t really understand at the time what it would mean if the word “recreation” was in there, and that she has since regretted allowing that vile word to sully her bond. The way he spoke of it, you’d think it was her own money. He turned his head to the side and virtually spat the word “rec” when he referred to subsequent use of the bond money for “rec projects” and alluded darkly to “people in this room” who “dislike” open space, vowing to “work hard” to defeat the beach pavilions if open space money were to be used.
Atlantic City boardwalk, Charlestown style.

Vanover then launched into his standard stump speech about how all the open space north of Route 1—which he even admitted is largely privately held—somehow helps keep everyone’s taxes low (although he neglected to mention that much of that open space, including his own property, is taxed at a fraction of its value as part of the Farm, Forest, and Open Space program). He then asked the council if they understood that and Gentz claimed he did. I can only assume Gentz was just saying that to move the proceedings along.

Councilor Lisa DiBello responded by pointing out that the state of Rhode Island offers grants for both open space and recreation as part of the same program. As former director of Parks and Recreation, she would appear to be in a good position to speak authoritatively on the subject. And indeed, on the RIDEM web site, it specifically states that Rhode Island Recreation Acquisition and Development Grants are funded out of the state’s Open Space Bond authorizations.

Frank Glista then went back to the podium to state that he’s always supported every open space purchase the town has made but that if it was important enough to put the pavilions before the voters, any future open space purchases should also be put before the voters and that the money shouldn’t just be spent because it’s available.

Leo Mainelli also returned to the podium to give his definitions of open space and recreation. Open space is a field and recreation is a walking trail and picnic tables, and he felt most people would concur with him on that. Though it seems to me that most public places where there are walking trails and picnic tables also have bathrooms. 

The final vote on the pavilions included an amendment requiring that they be paid for through a new bond and not the existing Open Space Recreation bond, which apparently was intended as a promissory note to the Charlestown Land Trust. And the referendum was approved, despite bitter opposition from owners of beachfront property who didn’t want to see their taxes go up to pay for bathrooms for everyone else to use seeing as how they could just walk home to use their own and didn’t need the new facilities themselves. Ultimately, the battle ended in a draw between town residents, who will no longer have to be disgusted to use the current facilities and embarrassed to have others use them, and the open-space advocates who got to keep “their” $2 million of our future tax money.