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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Town Council Meeting - Play-by-Play

Council Approves funding for YMCA land purchase
Updated - including ClerkBase video links

Monday night's Town Council meeting was exhausting work for Council members and the audience. Even after deferring the new lighting ordinance to next month, the agenda was jaw-droppingly long with item after item that could prompt extensive citizen comments.

Here is our quick report on topics discussed and decisions made at the meeting. We will be publishing in-depth articles on several of the topics over the next few days.

Lighting Ordinance

The new Dark Skies lighting ordinance was introduced at the January Town Council meeting, so it was automatically on the agenda for the public hearing this month. With the long agenda, this hearing has been delayed to next month’s Council meeting (March 12) which will be held in the Elementary School auditorium, anticipating enough public interest to require the larger space.

Wastewater Regulations

The Council approved a resolution of thanks to our state Representative Donna Walsh, Town Wastewater Manager Matthew Dowling and the Wastewater Management Commission for working with DEM to get agreement to modify rules to allow more cost-effective denitrification systems to be used. However, considerable work remains over the next couple of months for DEM to complete their rule-making on this.

Chariho Budget

The Chariho budget for the 2012-2013 school year shows an increase of school expense allocated to Charlestown for next year of about 3.5% plus debt service (roughly $574,000). (Video of discussion starts here.) Superintendent Ricci says the school budget is up 1.4% but Charlestown is getting a larger increase because our percentage of total enrollment is increasing this year. (Ours increases a little while Richmond's enrollment declines.) There is also an expectation for a reduction in State aid to the district which results in more funding allocated to the towns.

Our Budget Commission Chair Richard Sartor explained that he noticed that Chariho has been tapping its surplus fund for operating expenses. Obviously that cannot continue for long and he pointed out that a significant part of the year-to-year increase is caused by a year-to-year decrease in the amount funded from the surplus fund.

In addition, Charlestown may expect a reduction in state education aid to our town which will have to be offset by increased property taxes.

Gentz attempted to “make a deal” with Superintendent Ricci to reduce the Charlestown allocation, but Ricci pointed out that he is not authorized to negotiate the allocation to member towns. So then Gentz requested $262,000 of further reduction for the portion of Chariho’s budget allocated to Charlestown.

In the end the Council adopted a motion (unanimously) to request the School Committee to find further reductions that will not adversely affect students. No specific amount was included in the motion.

Breachway Grill Liquor License

Craig Marr’s previous appearances before the Council have been less than amiable, so we didn’t know what to expect during this hearing for a full liquor license. Marr noted that he was operating his restaurant year-round for the town but stated that he needs the full license to help generate the revenue to stay open year-round.

Several residents and business people in town spoke in support of the license approval. No one spoke in opposition. The license was approved unanimously, to the best applause of the evening, so this was done with a minimum of drama.

Affordable Housing Grants

Geoffrey Marchant of the Washington County Community Development Corporation came before the council requesting two grants totaling $250,000, through a voter-approved bond, to assist the development, with involvement of Habitat for Humanity, of 7 single-family homes for low-income families. The requests passed unanimously.
As we have noted before, these approvals are quite early in the process and many hurdles remain. The anti-children arguments are probably being saved for later development plan reviews.

YMCA Property Grant

An ad hoc committee developed the proposal for the town to supplement a DEM grant to for the Charlestown Land Trust to purchase the YMCA property.

Russ Ricci, Treasurer of the Charlestown land Trust, spoke about the proposal. He made a special point of saying that doing this deal would prevent adding more children to town that we would have to pay to educate.

He also said that town funding of the property purchase would result in the ability of town citizens to use the property from dawn until dusk. After some questioning he explained that this property is different than property where the Land Trust only holds an easement. Ricci said that owned land is generally accessible but the exact access will depend on the management plan, which will not be written until the acquisition is complete.

We have noted in prior articles that the Planning and Conservation Commissions gave distinctly different recommendations in their advisories. Lillian Arnold, Grace Klinger and Ken Simoneau of the Conservation Commission spoke to give some statements from their negative opinion.

Sixteen residents stood to speak and were mixed pro and con - but mostly con. Former Council member Forrester Safford noted that when he was on the Council, they passed the original Open Space/Recreation bond issue, but under entirely different economic circumstances. He advocated putting the matter to a vote, as did several other speakers.

During the Council discussion Tom Gentz spoke in favor of the purchase, spending the majority of time in his remarks on the issue of preventing the expense of more children. Marge Frank spoke with praise of the beauty and value of the land. Lisa DiBello spoke of her concerns about the deal. Gregg Avedisian stated that he supports this but not for the purpose of preventing 10 houses. Dan Slattery recused himself from the discussion and vote as a neighbor to the property.

The purchase of the conservation easement for $475,000, enabling the land purchase by the Land Trust, was approved 3 to 1 (DiBello opposed and Slattery recusing). Money will be raised by issuing Open Space/Recreation bonds without bringing the matter to the voters.

Town Council Comments

Readers of our articles may recall that Jay Primiano’s proposal to install such lighting on a practice field in Ninigret Park resulted in considerable controversy about the impact of lighting in Ninigret Park. Dan Slattery announced that citizens may view state-of-the-art sports field lighting that claims to be dark-sky friendly from 7:30 to 8:00 pm on Tuesday Feb 21 at Old Mountain Field in South Kingston.

Cross Mills Fire Station

Frank Glista proposed allowing the Economic Improvement Commission to take the lead on proposing a town use for the property, which will be available when the new Cross Mills fire station is occupied. The Council informally agreed with that plan.

Beach Smoking Ban

The Council voted unanimously to request the Parks and Recreation Commission to consider a smoking ban on the town beaches. Enforcement was discussed as somewhat of an open question.

Hometown Hero

Lisa DiBello proposed that Rhode Island Center Assisting those in Need (RICAN) be given the next Hometown Hero Award. This was accepted by the Council unanimously.

Spanish Inquisition Award for the Evening

We end our reporting this evening with a special award!

Reflecting back on the meeting, they came expecting a grilling but did they really expect the Spanish Inquisition? We're referring to Superintendent Ricci and members of the Chariho School Committee.

To us it seemed more like strutting and preening for some low-tax credibility, even if it results in negligible savings. And it probably polls well to cast anything to do with children as evil. And if we can save some Chariho budget it will cover a small amount of the $475,000 approved later for the Land Trust to get a piece of property.