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Monday, February 13, 2012

Is the YMCA Camp rip-off a done deal?

The Y, the Charlestown Land Trust and the Planning Commission think it is

By Will Collette

If you review the documents attached to the agenda for tonight’s Town Council meeting (that’s Monday, February 13 at 7 PM), you would think that it’s now just a formality for the Council to rubber-stamp the heist of $475,000 of Charlestown taxpayers’ money to buy a trashed-out campground from the YMCA.

If you haven’t been paying attention, this is a moment of climax in the long-running saga of what to do with the 27.5 acres of campground on Watchaug Pond that was abandoned by the Westerly YMCA four years ago.

It's a sweet deal for the YMCA. They will walk away with $730,000 for land covered in derelict buildings and old septic systems – land that cost them NOTHING.

The Charlestown Land Trust will make its biggest score ever, taking title to the camp as if it was “open space.”

The southern neighbors of the campground, the non-resident vacation cottage owners in the Sonquipaug neighborhood, get a free extension on their backyards.

Charlestown and Rhode Island taxpayers get to pay the tab, including the extensive costs of cleaning up the mess the YMCA has left behind.

We are also stuck with the cost of testing water quality, cesspools, and the tests to detect hazardous substances, lead contamination, asbestos and soil contamination. The YMCA is passing that cost on to the Charlestown Land Trust and the Land Trust is passing the cost on to Charlestown tax payers. The state forbids the use of their money for this purpose.

According to the Appraisal, page 10, the appraiser was "not qualified to detect hazardous waste and/or toxic materials." Also, he only did an external examination of the buildings. He noted that all four bathhouses, presumably connected to the four on-site waste-water treatment systems, are in poor condition (page 36 of the Appraisal), and that doesn't bode well for the condition of the septics.
Land Purchase and Sales Agreement, page 3 - the "Buyer" (read that as Charlestown taxpayer) pays
Within the collection of documents (must have Adobe 8 to open) you can read for yourself are:
  • The original proposal from the Ad Hoc Committee, which lists $946,000 as the total acquisition cost for the property
  • An appraisal that sets the “value” of the land at $735,000
  • A purchase and sales agreement that the Land Trust has already signed with the YMCA for $730,000 with a closing set for April 16, 2012
  • In that same agreement, the Land Trust promises to pay the YMCA an additional $9,999 deposit TOMORROW, clearly assuming the Town Council will approve the deal tonight.
  • A second purchase and sales agreement for Charlestown to sign which entails the town paying the Charlestown Land Trust $475,000 for a “conservation easement” on the property.
This is the time table for the deal:

By appointment only! Conservation easement, page 2
Here's what town payers get for their half a million dollars. Under the terms of the conservation easement, the “Grantee” (the town and its citizens) can enter the land – “by pre-arranged appointment” – to “observe and study nature, make scientific and educational observations and studies in such as manner as will not disturb the quiet enjoyment by the Grantor (the Land Trust).”

Really? How nice of the Land Trust to allow us this by-appointment-only, so-long-as-we-don’t-disturb-them access

As I wrote in earlier articles, this is the Charlestown Land Trust’s standard way of managing property – by keeping people out – in contrast to the way Parks and Recreation manages property, which is to make it people-friendly.

For this, we have to pay $475,000? And that doesn’t count our share of the $367,000 in state funding that is part of the deal.

In the package of materials, you will also find an Advisory Opinion from the Charlestown Conservation Commission. They think this is a very bad deal. In their opinion, the YMCA camp is NOT open space by a long-shot. It is a bad deal and we don’t even know what other surprises are buried on that property.
FALSE STATEMENT from the Purchase and Sale Contract, page 4:
there are four wastewater treatment systems on the camp grounds.
One of them is 35 years old. The last inspection was June 2007
in violation of Charlestown ordinances.
The other Advisory Opinion is from the Planning Commission. It was written by Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, who is a founding member of the Charlestown Land Trust but has not acknowledged her conflict of interest and did not recuse herself from working on a deal for the benefit of the organization she founded.

Platner thinks the property is a unique natural treasure and that we should snap it up – and we should consider the price the YMCA is charging to be a “donation.”

She speaks of the deal as if it was better than Peter Stuyvesant's "purchase" of Manhattan from the Indians. But I think it's more like buying the Brooklyn Bridge.
From the Planning Commission Advisory Opinion. This is why we should pay the YMCA half a
million dollars. According to YMCA filings with IRS,
they charged users of
their services $2.2 million
. They have more than $9 million in net assets.
They pay their Executive Director almost $170,000.  See the proof here.
Tonight, it will be up to four Council members to decide.

Council Vice-President Dan Slattery has consistently recused himself on this issue. He lives next to the property. Unlike Ruth Platner – and to his credit – Slattery understands what a conflict of interest is.

His CCA colleague, Council President Tom Gentz, voted against the proposal by Ted Veazey to build a beautiful conservation development on the property. I have not seen any hints about his current position on this matter.

Councilor Gregg Avedisian was the Council lead on the Ad Hoc Committee that came forward with the plan to buy the property for “open space,” but he has not declared whether he wants town money to be spent on it, and if so, whether it should go before the voters first. Clearly, a town vote isn’t likely before the projected April 16 closing date.

Councilor Marge Frank voted against the Veazey project, saying she couldn't agree to the change to the Comprehensive Plan – i.e., the zoning change – Veazey needed, but has not hinted at her views on this terrible deal.

Then there’s Councilor Lisa DiBello. She also voted FOR the Veazey proposal last spring, noting the land isn't really "open space" and that we have plenty of tax-exempt land already. She generally is conservative about the use of town money. She generally votes the opposite of her arch-enemy Councilor Avedisian. And DiBello is suing the town. She may have a different priority for the use of town money than spending it on a busted out Y Camp.

Under the Town Charter, three of the five Council members must vote yes for the Council to approve any action. With the recusal of Slattery, that cuts the available votes to four. If the vote splits 2-2, the YMCA deal is defeated.