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Thursday, January 12, 2012

UPDATED: Ten reasons why the Y Camp Deal is a BAD deal for Charlestown taxpayers

Let the Charlestown Land Trust buy the land themselves
By Will Collette

UPDATED with additional information on how Planning Commissar Ruth Platner ends up paying lower taxes than other Charlestown citizens.

It’s nice to see the Charlestown Land Trust crank up its fund-raising efforts to buy the trashed-out YMCA Camp on Watchaug Pond. Actually, it’s mostly the effort of Joanne D’Alcomo, the Boston lawyer who led her fellow part-time residents in the Sonquipaug Association to kill a beautiful conservation development that had been proposed for that property. Instead, the Sonquipaug NIMBYs want the camp to be set aside as open space so they can continue to use it as an extension of their backyards.

That would be fine, except they want the taxpayers to pay for it. According to the proposal currently before the town, the acquisition cost for the busted-out campground is $946,000. State money would cover $367,000 and the rest would have to come from Charlestown. The current amount requested in their proposal is $476,000 from the town. So we're asked to spend almost a million dollars of state and town taxpayer money – and then we turn over title to the private Charlestown Land Trust so the Sonquipaug NIMBYs can use it.

Well, I wish the Land Trust and Sonquipaug NIMBYs mazel tov on their fund-raising efforts, because there are at least ten very good reasons why Charlestown taxpayers should not put ONE NICKEL into that campground, and should leave it to the Charlestown Land Trust to buy it themselves.

Here are the ten reasons:

  1. An acquisition cost of  $946,000 is too much. The Y is asking too high a price. When Larry LeBlanc offered to sell his controversial 81 acres to the town for open space (thereby allowing the town to end all the unpopular uses LeBlanc had proposed for that land), we refused to even bargain with him. But we’re ready to take the YMCA land with scant consideration of its true worth. Also, the related costs (like demolition and clean-up) are too high and should be carried by the eventual title holder, the Land Trust, or the owner, the YMCA, and not the buyer – town taxpayers. 
Joanne D'Alcomo, leader of the
Sonquipaug NIMBY group
  1. Town taxpayers will not benefit. The Land Trust strictly restricts access to property it controls. We pay but can’t look or touch without their permission. Of its 14 major properties, only 2 maintain regular hours. To see the others, you must have an appointment or go on a guided tour.  
  1. The principal beneficiary is a neighborhood of non-residents. Even though the Y Camp is private property, signposted and dangerous, the Sonquipaug NIMBYs have been using the land anyway. One young mother told the Town Council she lets her little girl go and play there among the ruined buildings. While the Land Trust generally restricts access to land they control, the Sonquipaug NIMBYs won’t let a little thing like that bother them. Most of the homes in the Sonquipaug neighborhood are summer homes for non-residents. 
Planning Commissar Ruth
Platner has not recused
herself from project that would
steer town-financed land to
group she founded
  1. There are undisclosed conflicts of interest of Planning Commissioners. As I reported, two Planning Commission members are founding members of the Charlestown Land Trust. Planning Commissar Ruth Platner also helped kill the conservation development proposal and has actually pushed to make this one million dollar gift to the organization she founded. But she NEVER disclosed her relationship with the Land Trust and DID NOT RECUSE herself from involvement in the deal.  
  1. There are higher priorities: There are at least three much better ways to use the town’s money.
    1. Homestead Tax Credit. Give Charlestown resident homeowners a break on their property tax.  
    2. LeBlanc land. End Charlestown’s long battle over whether LeBlanc’s land will become a wind farm, Indian casino, mega-housing development, nerve gas factory or penal camp. 
    3. Manage and maintain existing town lands. Follow through on Deputy Dan Slattery’s concern that somehow Charlestown’s many “phantom properties” are being invaded by varmints. (But seriously, we have lots of land we don’t know what to do with – and maybe it’s time to deal with that.) 
  1. The voters should decide. The town council majority – under instructions from the Charlestown Citizens Alliance – forced the Parks and Recreation Commission to put the issue of building much-needed new toilet facilities to a referendum, rather than pay for it under the unspent portion of the town’s Open Space and Recreation Bond. When the town was considering the purchase of Larry LeBlanc’s 81 acres for open space, Council members vowed to put the matter before the voters in a referendum. So what makes the YMCA deal so special that it should not be treated the same as these other two matters? 
Deputy Dan Slattery still doesn't know
what the town will do with the land it has
  1. UPDATED: 7. Charlestown has too much tax-exempt property already. According to Tax Assessor Ken Swain, 42% of Charlestown’s land is already tax-exempt. When you add in land that is granted huge tax breaks under the Farms, Forest and Open Space program,  the amount rises to over 50%. Planning Commissar Platner gets a fantastic tax break on 13.5 acres because it contains a deed-restricted portion dedicated to agricultural production. Of the 42% identified by Ken Swain, between 30% and 35%, depending on which Ruth Platner statistic you believe, is genuine open space. The totals also do not include the extensive amount of space occupied by salt and fresh water ponds.  And then there is the town-owned land that isn’t used or managed properly (e.g., “phantom” properties).
  1. 8. Too many lies and misrepresentations by acquisition advocates.  The YMCA camp land is not by any stretch the only public access point for Watchaug Pond. In fact, the pond frontage owned by Burlingame State Park and the Kimball Wildlife Sanctuary is far more important. Even though Planning Commissar sold the town the idea of turning the camp into open space because the town needs more active recreation, the grant she wrote and the proposal before the town restricts the site use to passive recreation only. Despite the Land Trust’s fund-raising literature’s claim to the contrary, the site will not be accessible to everyone in town. And it is not an unspoiled wilderness - it is a busted-out campground covered with decrepit buildings. It is not the exclusive habitat of all the various species identified in the Land Trust fund raising literature. So many lies. So much money.
More than 2000' from the proposed Prosser Lane parking - impossible
for handicapped persons
  1. No handicapped access and limited access for everyone else (almost). This ought to be a legal deal-breaker. The site will not be able to comply with the civil rights of the handicapped under the Americans with Disabilities Act unless parking access is allowed in the Sonquipaug NIMBY’s neighborhood, and that option is not even on the table. Unless you can walk 1000 feet and more likely more than 2000 feet, you will not be able to get to the pond access on the site. Also, the Charlestown Land Trust does not allow unrestricted public access to its properties. Only two of its 14 major properties in town have regular hours when they are open to the public – the other 12 require either an appointment or that you be part of a scheduled guided tour group. But none of these restrictions should be a problem for the Sonquipaug NIMBYs, who are the principal beneficiaries of this rip-off. 
  1. Health and safety problems. There are 15 derelict buildings covering the site, plus a number of old cesspools. Planning Commissar Ruth Platner proposes to cut costs by having VOLUNTEERS do the demolition. Of all construction tasks, demolition is among the most dangerous. It is a job that should not be done by amateurs. See all the related problems here. And that's just the buildings. We don't know the condition of the old cesspools or whether there are any other environmental surprises on the land. By the way, the Land Trust, the YMCA and Ruth Platner want to fast-track this deal even though the Trust has until the end of the year to raise the money. Every other time the town has tried to rush a deal, Platner and the CCA screamed bloody murder. As the Conservation Commission put it, "What's the rush?" 
If the busted-out YMCA Camp is going to be returned to the “scenic beauty” the Charlestown Land Trust fund-raising literature claims it is, let them pay for it. It’s bad enough that there is $367,000 of our state tax dollars already suckered into this deal, but there is no value to Charlestown taxpayers to put $476,000 of town money into it.

It's not like the Charlestown Land Trust can't afford it. According to the IRS-990 report the Trust filed with the IRS a year ago, they had $174,330 in cash and savings, plus they had just gotten a gift of $196,167 in stock. And that doesn't count the money they raised since then. They should have just about enough to be able to write a check to the YMCA to buy the land. That is, if this deal is that important to them.    

I hope the Land Trust succeeds in raising enough money to take advantage of the state DEM challenge grant. They have the rest of the year to do that. And let the Sonquipaug NIMBYs do their share too, since they are the ones who have the most to gain. And that includes not just money, but handicapped access. Without handicapped access, even if the Land Trust does not use Charlestown taxpayers’ money, the site will still be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.