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Monday, January 23, 2012

NEW: Now there are ELEVEN reasons why the YMCA Camp is a bad deal for Charlestown Taxpayers.

Conservation Commission gives the YMCA Camp an “F” for flunking as open space
By Will Collette

The Charlestown Conservation Commission met in a special session on January 8 and voted to give the Town Council a negative Advisory Opinion on the proposed taxpayer purchase of the busted out YMCA Camp on Watchaug Pond. As readers will recall, this land purchase is currently being railroaded through the Town Council with Planning Commissar Ruth Platner at the engineer’s switch.

Using ten standard scoring criteria to evaluate whether a property is desirable open space, the Conservation Commission gave the proposal only 11 points out of a potential 30. That’s a score of 37% or “F.”

Conservation Commission members walked the site and examined it carefully. They found the site to be very different from the way it is portrayed in the Charlestown Land Trust literature as well as in the proposal to RIDEM that set up the potential for a $367,000 grant from the state. And they determined that the Y Camp is a very bad investment for town taxpayer dollars.

The Conservation Commission’s report is at the end of this article, or you can go hunting for it in its original location. To find it, go to the official Charlestown website (not Clerkbase). Click on the tab “Agendas-meetings-newsletter” in the left-hand column. Click on “Conservation Commission.” Now click on “C.C. 1.8.12 DRAFT Minutes,” and there you are.

If you read the Conservation Commission’s report and compare it to the RIDEM grant application and Charlestown Land Trust fund-raising material, you might think there were two different sites being discussed. Read the RIDEM grant application here, starting on page three of the document on Clerkbase.

But there’s just the one site – though there are definitely different agendas in operation.

The Conservation Commission notes the presence of all the buildings, the likely presence of lead, asbestos and mold, cesspools and septic systems, and a chain link fence completely surrounding the property (but not sufficient to keep neighboring children out). The Commission notes that the removal of all this detritus will be very costly.

“Our conclusion on this property is that it does not score well based on recognized conservation criteria and thus does not justify the expenditure of town funds since large portions are already well developed and would require major expenditures to return to true open space.”

The Conservation Commission does not have the same influence with the CCA-controlled Town Council as the Planning Commission, which is comprised entirely of hand-picked CCA members and is led by Ruth Platner, one of the CCA founders. Her husband, Cliff Vanover, is a member of the CCA Steering Committee and is one of the town’s most radical open space devotees.

Platner is also a founding member of the Charlestown Land Trust, which will be given title to the land that your tax dollars would buy. Click here for an analysis of Platner's apparent conflict of interest.

In a nutshell, the Conservation Commission says the YMCA Camp is not open space. They say the only way to make it open space is to spend a huge amount of money.

Even if the land is somehow magically returned to its pristine, pre-Columbian state, the only parking would be on Prosser Trail. As I wrote earlier, that would  be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because it would require a 2000-foot walk (or roll), an impossible distance for many handicapped persons. See analysis of the disability access problem and maps here.

The Conservation Commission also noted a misrepresentation by the Charlestown Land Trust. Adding the Y Camp to open space would not fill in a gap in the Vin Gormley Trail. In fact, because the land is bounded on the north and south by residential developments, a new path would have to be cut through one of the few unspoiled parts of the camp to connect it to the Vin Gormley Trail, which goes along Prosser Trail. 

According to the proposal put before the Town Council by the Ad Hoc Committee, the total acquisition cost for the property is $946,000, of which $367,000 would come from the state, some would come from private fund-raising, and the balance, perhaps as much as half a million dollars, would come from Charlestown taxpayers.

That number changed to $730,000 when the Land Trust and Ruth Platner pitched it to the Town Council. That figure, $730,000, appears in the Ad Hoc Committee’s proposal as the “land cost” only within an overall “acquisition cost" of $946,000.

All of these numbers are different than those given in the RIDEM proposal, where the total cost was pegged at $735,000 with NO town funds – just state funding through RIDEM and private donations.

There was a lot of fast talk at the December 12 Town Council meeting about how the costs were calculated and who would be responsible for what. But if you cut through the static and focus on what’s in the key documents, this deal smells even worse than before.

The original grant application to RIDEM is a good place to start. This is the proposal that Ruth Platner recently claims she didn’t write, even though she earlier told the Westerly Sun that she did it as a “private citizen.” Now she says she wrote some version of it when there was a chance the town might try to buy Larry LeBlanc’s controversial property and that the Land Trust simply “recycled” it.

That’s her story and she’s sticking to it, but if you look at the actual application, it seems unlikely that this was recycled from a proposal describing a parcel about a mile distant from the Y Camp.

One of the most interesting parts of the RIDEM proposal is on Page 2. On this page, the “Total Cost” for the project is given as $735,000. RIDEM is asked to contribute $367,000 and the remaining $368,000, 50% plus a dollar, will be raised from:

“Donations by neighbors, interested members of the public, and revenues earned through fundraising events and activities.”

The sections to list local funds from “Appropriations….Bonds….Other” are left blank. The Charlestown Land Trust told RIDEM in its proposal that it would raise the matching funds privately and not ask for a nickel from the Town of Charlestown. That was then. This is now.

"You won't regret buying this great piece of land"
QUESTION: So why are Charlestown taxpayers now on the hook to buy this land? And should this false and misleading claim to RIDEM be corrected?

Further, under the RIDEM proposal guidelines, this project would probably not be eligible for funding if they gave the $946,000 figure. RIDEM Open Space grant limits are 50% of the project cost, up to $400,000. Half of $946,000 is $473,000 and that's $73,000 over the maximum.

So they told RIDEM the total cost was $735,000 and told the Charlestown Town Council the total cost was $946,000. When the Land Trust's Russ Ricci kept telling the Town Council on Dec. 12 that the deal was a great one because it was "fifty cents on the dollar," that wasn't exactly true on two counts. First, the state is funding 50% of $735,000, not $946,000. Second, the state's money is also our money. It just comes from a different pot and includes tax dollars from other citizens around the state. 

QUESTION: Which is the honest acquisition cost for the YMCA Camp caper? Is it the $735,000 they told RIDEM? Or is it the $946,000 in the Ad Hoc Committee’s proposal?

The description of the site in the RIDEM grant application is extremely deceptive. Rather than describe the actual 27.7-acre parcel, the proposal talks about Watchaug Pond and the surrounding area. The proposal lists the fish in Watchaug Pond, the birds, critters and flora in the surrounding woods, but almost nothing specific to the site.

One of the few specific descriptions (page 3) of the site is that it is “the largest private parcel of land on Watchaug Pond that is currently unprotected from development.” The proposal makes several references to the thwarted effort by Ted Veazey to obtain approval for an eco-friendly conservation development, as if he wanted to build a toxic waste dump or a nerve gas factory.

But the proposal’s claim that this land “is currently unprotected from development” is challenged by the Conservation Commission’s observation that:

“the middle portion is heavily developed with buildings, roads, tennis court and septic or cesspool systems which would require a major expenditure of money due to the amount of demolition/remediation work that would need to be done and the need for special precautions to ensure that none of the hazardous materials get into the environment. As a result, this open space would be devoid of significant trees or plants unless further expense is incurred to add native vegetation.”

You would never know this if all you read was the Land Trust proposal to RIDEM. In it, they say “most of the site is forested, with one open managed field. There is a bluebird box on the field…Should the property be protected, the understory of the forest will be allowed to continue to grow in.”

QUESTION: Who is telling the truth about the site? The Conservation Commission? Or the Charlestown Land Trust, aided by Planning Commissar Ruth Platner?

The RIDEM proposal (page 9) confirms what Progressive Charlestown has been saying about this deal from the beginning. This deal is for the benefit of the non-resident landowners in the Sonquipaug Association.

“Yes, there are neighborhoods near the site that were built before zoning and are built at urban densities…in particular the Sonquipaug Association on the south side of the property for which the presence of the open space on the property is particularly significant.”

The narrative goes on to describe in detail why this site is so important to Sonquipaug. Nowhere else in the proposal is there such a detailed description about anyone else benefiting from this deal.

QUESTION: Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, why are Charlestown taxpayers being asked to buy land primarily for the benefit of non-resident property owners?

The proposal’s description of the land’s ownership history is at odds with the data on the Charlestown Tax Assessor’s database. According to the proposal (page 11), the camp was “first owned by the Camp Fire Girls and then purchased [emphasis added] by the YMCA in 1985 with funds from the Champlin Foundation.” According to the Assessor’s database, that land transfer involved no exchange of money. It says the cost of the transfer from the Camp Fire Girls to the YMCA is ZERO. Either the proposal or the assessor's database is wrong.

The question of how much the YMCA paid for the land – if it paid anything at all – is relevant because they, along with the Charlestown Land Trust and the Sonquipaug Association, are the ones who stand the most to gain from this caper. The YMCA is looking to get paid somewhere in the vicinity of $700,000 for the property (that figure moves around a lot, depending on which record you see and on what date). Note that when the YMCA was negotiating a sale of the land to Ted Veazey, the valuation was based on the land being used to build homes. Now, the land is essentially abandoned, and the buildings on the site are a liability. The land value as "Open  Space/Recreation" with derelict buildings is very different than its value as a proposed R-2 parcel.
QUESTION: Are the YMCA and the Charlestown Land Trust trying to rip off the town?

Good proposal-writing is creative writing. While a grant writer may get creative with the details, it's generally a bad idea to tell lies. Even though the odds of getting caught are low, if you do get caught, you are burned with that funding source forever. And if you lie on an application for government funds, you could be prosecuted.

During 25 years in the non-profit world, I wrote a lot of grant proposals. I know when a grant writer is spinning the truth and weaving a yarn intended to pull the wool over the funder’s eyes. This is one of those cases. It may not be fraud, although that would be for RIDEM and ultimately the Attorney General to decide, but this is not an honest grant application for state tax dollars.

QUESTION: Does RIDEM know the truth about this project that has won a matching grant award of $367,000? Who should tell them?

Based on what is written in the proposal, RIDEM does not have an accurate picture of the nature of the property or the structure of the financial deal.

Then there's the misstatement the Westerly Sun caught Ruth Platner making about the use of the land. She told the Town Council we needed the land because of the lack of active recreational opportunities, yet this grant application limits the use of the land to passive recreation only. That looks a lot like bait-and-switch.

The Conservation Commission has flunked the YMCA Camp caper as a bad deal for Charlestown. That gives us Reason #11 among the ten already listed to reject this deal..

Perhaps Reason #12 is the RIDEM application. Did the authors of the proposal – whether they include Ruth Platner as she said in July or not, as she said in December – cross the line between acrobatic semantics and false and misleading statements in the quest for state government funds? If so, is it against the law for a group to make false and misleading statements to a government agency in an effort to get government funds? Stay tuned.

Also read: Westerly Sun coverage in their public access section.