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Monday, January 30, 2012

Is the YMCA a good neighbor?

They should obey the same building codes as everyone else.
By Will Collette

At the risk of taking on another untouchable, much-beloved local institution, it’s time to take a critical look at the YMCA’s role in the attempted mugging of Charlestown taxpayers.

Of the very short list of beneficiaries for the proposed deal, the Ocean Community YMCA of Westerly is a major player. 

They stand to walk away with $700,000 or more in your tax money for land it abandoned. They hope to sell the land to the town as if it was pristine wilderness, at a price pegged as if it was being sold as a residential development.

But the campground is far from being a natural paradise. Here's how Frank Glista, chair of the town Economic Improvement Commission (and a friend and colleague), put it at the Town Council's May 9, 2011, hearing on the camp:

"I recently drove into the YMCA property and viewed all the buildings and infrastructure. I also viewed the surrounding properties to get a sense of the neighborhood to its northern and southern border. I came away with the conclusion that this 20-acre parcel, with its metal fencing, 14 buildings with 8000 square feet of living space, outdated septic systems and collapsed roads is as far from the image of open space as we could ever get. In my opinion, the only use for this property, in its existing condition is if Hollywood decided to remake an episode of Hogan’s Heroes, as it closely resembles a concentration camp. With all the chatter about this property, one would believe that this is the most pristine parcel in Charlestown. It is far from it."

The Conservation Commission, in its negative opinion to the Town Council, also noted the presence of the buildings, old sewage systems, roads, chain link fence, as well as asbestos, lead and mold. All of these features are liabilities that are not reflected in the price we are being asked to pay.

The Town Council heard testimony that the children of neighbors of the camp find their way through, around and over that chain link fence onto the site to play.

The YMCA pays no taxes, even though the current assessment on the land is $1,137,700. The land has not been taxed at least since back to 1946 when the Camp Fire Girls owned the camp.

By the way, the YMCA paid NOTHING for the camp when the title was transferred to it from the Camp Fire Girls. They have had the tax-free use of the camp they got for free.

And then the YMCA has abandoned it, as “abandonment” is defined in the Town Code of Ordinances, §218.39 E(1) over four years ago.

The YMCA has not behaved like a very good corporate citizen or a good neighbor.

Because that land is no longer being used for any tax-exempt purpose, does it still need to be exempted from town property tax?

The only use the YMCA wants to make of this property – for which it paid nothing – is to sell it to the taxpayers for $700,000 or more. That’s the YMCA’s share of the $946,000 in total acquisition costs in the proposal currently before the town. Anyway, turning a $700,000 profit doesn’t sound like a very tax-exempt activity to me.

Perhaps the Town Council needs to consider revoking their tax-exempt status – certainly for 50 Bayberry (the old camp) – and maybe some questions should be asked about the newer camp.

It bothers me – and maybe it bothers you, too – that the YMCA, along with the Charlestown Land Trust and Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, is trying to rush the town into committing almost half a million dollars of town money – on top of $367,000 in state money – to buy a camp that cost the YMCA nothing.

On which they have never paid taxes.

And a camp that is abandoned, in disrepair and potentially dangerous to children who go on the site.

Rather than get stampeded by Planning Commissar Ruth Platner and the Charlestown Land Trust into buying an abandoned property covered with derelict buildings, why not first make the YMCA live up to its responsibilities as a Charlestown property owner?

Under the State’s Building Maintenance Code, every property owner, even a non-profit one, has the responsibility to maintain their property in good and safe condition. If not, they are subject to enforcement action by our Town Building Official who has broad authority under RI General Laws 23-27.3-100.

Upon a complaint – see the complaint form below and the note following it – our Town Building Official will investigate the conditions on the property and determine whether the YMCA is meeting the standards set out in the law.

Perhaps the 15 abandoned buildings have doors or windows that are broken or not secured, or there may be conditions that pose potential danger. These could include sagging porches, overhangs, roofs, steps, etc. Our Building Official knows violations when he sees them and has volumes of state code specifications to refer to.

He can require the YMCA to remedy those deficiencies.

The old, abandoned septic systems and cesspools are also under his jurisdiction. According to Town Hall records, the campground has four on-site wastewater systems. The youngest one is 9 years old. Two are twenty years old and one is 35 years old. The last inspection was in June 2007. Under Town Ordinance 210-6, they are overdue for inspection, and they should be made to obey the law, the same as the rest of us.

After all, as we are so often reminded, the campground is right on Watchaug Pond.

Rather than allow the YMCA to dump its legal responsibilities on the town and the taxpayers, I think it’s long past time that the Y gets introduced to the law.

If there are indeed violations and they are cited, the YMCA must take the required actions to eliminate the conditions that violate the law.

If the YMCA fails to abate those violations, they could be taken into our own new Charlestown Municipal Court where they face fines of up to $50 per day if the matter is pursued as a civil matter or up to $500 a day if their neglect is deemed to be criminal.

Good neighbors keep their property in good repair as the law requires. 

In my opinion, the first condition for negotiating a fair and reasonable price for the land must be the YMCA’s full compliance with the law and the removal of the buildings and old septic systems from the site – or a very sharp drop in the asking sale price. Then we can talk to them about a property that at least has some potential to be decent open space at some point within the next decade or two.

If you want to get the ball rolling to make the YMCA obey the same laws that apply to the rest of us, here is a copy of the complaint form. Fill it out (the Y Camp’s address is 50 Bayberry Lane) and send it to Joe Warner, Charlestown Building Official, at Town Hall.

NOTE: You must give your name, address and contact information. And you must sign the complaint. No anonymous complaints!

The town Building Official takes these complaints seriously. Also, to effectively act on the complaint, he needs to be able to contact the complainant. 

If you file a complaint, either against the YMCA or against anyone, you should believe in the merits of the complaint and be willing to put your name to it.