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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Feds, the town and Ninigret Park

What one of Deputy Dan’s secret documents shows
"It says right here the town has a legal, ethical and moral
obligation" to do what I tell them."
By Will Collette

For almost two weeks, we have been left to wonder what the hell Town Council Vice-President Deputy Dan Slattery (CCA) has been talking about in his latest quest for truth, justice and the American Way.

During the March 12 Town Council meeting, Deputy Dan launched a new jihad against town administration of Ninigret Park, the Parks and Recreation Commission and director, and the Town Administrator over two documents. He says these documents raise issues that put Charlestown in jeopardy of failing in its “legal, moral and ethical obligations” in the way it uses Ninigret Park.

Despite Deputy Dan’s repeated references to these two public documents, his stated intent of wanting them released to the public and my request for them under Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA), Deputy Dan has once again come down against open and transparent government. For earlier examples, click here.

But I have obtained one of the documents, and here’s what’s in it.

Deputy Dan and his secret papers
Click here to read the 50-page “historical” document referred to by Deputy Dan. This document describes the history of Ninigret Park when it was turned into a Navy air strip for pilot training during World War II. President George Bush the Senior trained there.

Then the base was closed in the 1970s and the federal government had to decide what it wanted to do with 600 acres of coastal land containing the leftovers of a Navy base (including a sizeable amount of buried toxic waste). The feds sifted through a total of eighteen proposals, ranging from a nuclear power plant (seriously) to housing developments to a YMCA Camp (like we needed another one) to various other forms of preservation and recreation.

Ultimately, the feds decided to give 307 acres to the US Department of Interior to be administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a wildlife refuge especially for migratory water fowl. They awarded 60 acres to EPA for a laboratory. The remaining 237 acres went to the town of Charlestown for public recreation uses that were "not incompatible with" the wildlife refuge.

Approximately 180 acres of the town's share of the land were to be used for passive recreation or open space as a “buffer” for the wildlife refuge.

Here is the key section from the “Goulding Decision” whereby the deal was struck:
For most of the past 33 years, that has been the arrangement. The Ninigret Park Master Plan acknowledges (page 2) that 172.4 acres of Ninigret Park are the buffer and 55 acres of the park have been used for active recreation, such as the existing sports fields and venues, and as festival and event space. These existing activities are also described in the Master Plan.

The key document is the actual deed that transferred the land from the feds to the town. This is the document that contains those “legal, ethical and moral” conditions raised by Deputy Dan. This apparently is why, after 33 years, Deputy Dan, with the support of Town Council Boss Tom Gentz (CCA), have decided to yield to the feds in all matters Ninigret.

"Not inconsistent with" and "consistent with...." gee, is
there a difference?
The original language of the deed laid out familiar territory – that the town’s land is to be used for public recreation “not inconsistent with” the neighboring wildlife refuge.

NOTE: the words “not inconsistent with” are not the same as “consistent with.” Because the Town agreed to use most of its share of the land as a buffer for the wildlife refuge, it gained the use of 55 acres for active recreation – so long as it is “not inconsistent with” the refuge.

If the CCA, through its elected town leaders, wants to change the way the land agreement is interpreted to mean “consistent with,” that leads to the logical conclusion that (a) we must throw out the Ninigret Park Master Plan, as Deputy Dan proposes and (b) sharply curb sports activity as Boss Gentz has mandated. And perhaps (c) eliminate the summer events and (d) merge the town’s 55 acres used for active recreation into the 172-acre buffer. Or maybe just give the Park back to the feds.

And that seems to be the CCA position. In their March 15 e-bleat to their supporters, the CCA says the Interior Department reminded “the Town that it has an obligation under the 1979 transfer of the property from the Federal government to use the property in a manner consistent with [emphasis added, but those are the CCA's words] the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge.”

Except that’s not what the land transfer agreement and deed says.

Because this deed transferred almost half of a Navy base to the town to use for something else other than a Navy base, there are details about making sure construction is done with care to respect any archaeological sites, to minimize impact on the environment and to comply with state and federal laws.

Another potentially problematic section, if applied literally – or as the CCA seems to prefer to do it, beyond literally - is this one, that seems to require the town to get advance written approval from the Secretary of Interior any time it permits a third party to use Ninigret Park for a recreational purpose.

Does the Seafood Festival have a letter from the Interior Secretary giving his approval for the upcoming event? How about Rhythm and Roots? Does Frosty Drew have a DOI certificate posted in their entryway? Does the volunteer group that runs senior citizen activities at the Community Center have advance, written DOI approval?

It's our moral, ethical and legal obligation to say
At the March 12 Town Council meeting, the Council gave its approval to the Charlestown Elementary Fourth Grade Class to use the park for a picnic. Sorry, kiddies, unless you can crack out a letter from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, no picnic for you!

I would like one of our anti-children CCA crusaders to deliver the news to the 4th grade that there can be no picnic. Same goes for any sports team that uses the playing fields during daytime but without advance, written DOI approval.

At the March 12th meeting, both Deputy Dan Slattery and Boss Gentz made a big show of their total deference to the Department of Interior.

Boss Gentz rules
Boss Gentz announced that he was unilaterally declaring there will be no sports lighting because the Interior Department’s Boston office objected to the concept of a commercial lighted football stadium at Ninigret – not that anyone is actually suggesting a commercial lighted football stadium at Ninigret. But that veto of a far-fetched, hypothetical land use caused our brave Boss Gentz to defy the Town Charter and make his declaration. He also declared that he would tolerate no discussion, no dissent, no review of his decision and certainly no vote.

And Deputy Dan is just getting wound up to carry this matter on to its most absurd conclusion. I sometimes engage in the trick of logic called “reductio ad absurdum.” The way the trick works is you take someone’s point and extend it out to its most absurd possible conclusion to make it seem ridiculous.

Boss Gentz and Deputy Dan – always
vigilant for evil-doers
In Deputy Dan’s and Boss Gentz’s case, they beat me to it every time. They take 33-year-old language that, if interpreted literally, would mean the feds have to approve every summer event, every vendor at every event, every sponsor of every picnic or game at the park in writing, in advance with careful consideration as to whether it is a use completely compatible with the National Wildlife Refuge. In other words, take 33 years of relative harmony and throw it out the window.

There are two precipitating events that brought us to this point. One is the town’s partnership with the Washington County Regional Planning Commission to obtain a federal grant for three wind turbines in the Park that would have supplied power for municipal operations. That proposal died and the grant money was returned after Charlestown enacted its ban on wind energy.

In a letter that has been described by both Boss Gentz and Deputy Dan – but not released to the public – it appears that Interior considered the municipal wind turbine project to be “commercial” as well as not “consistent with” the wildlife refuge. If our esteemed leaders ever release the letter that Boss Gentz insisted on referring to on March 12, we can see for ourselves exactly what the Interior Department said.

The second event was the Parks and Recreation proposal to DEM for state funding for dark sky-friendly sports field lighting. In December, the Town Council voted unanimously to allow the proposal to go forward on the condition that if the funding was approved, they would consider the project on the merits. Boss Gentz and Deputy Dan Slattery voted for this resolution.

But now, that proposal has become one of several political footballs in the dark sky ordinance fight. Someone, as yet unidentified, brought the issue to the Boston office of the Interior Department as some sort of commercial football stadium scheme, which the Interior Department vetoed as (a) commercial, not public and (b) not consistent with the wildlife refuge.

Based on DOI’s negative views of the now-double dead municipal wind turbine project and the sports lighting proposal, Boss Gentz and Deputy Dan find ample reason to overturn the Ninigret Park Master Plan, relegate the Parks and Recreation to obscurity, cede control over Ninigret Park to the feds and to a yet-to-be-named “Stakeholders” Commission, and purge the Town Administrator and Parks & Rec Director.

On January 28, Boss Gentz, in his Uncle Fluffy persona,
hosted a training session for other members of the Vintage
Porsche TYP 356NE Club at his home off East Beach Rd.
For 33 years, the town and the Fish and Wildlife Service have worked together. I’m sure there were disagreements from time to time. Now we have the two Town Council officers working actively to change the relationship between Charlestown and the federal government, casting the town in the servile role and the feds as their master.

What I look for in town leadership is leadership FOR Charlestown. If Deputy Dan wants to serve the federal government’s interest over those of Charlestown, he should have remained a federal bureaucrat. If Boss Gentz doesn’t have the cojones to stand up for the town in his dealings with the feds, then maybe it’s time for him to run for President of his antique Porsche restoration club, rather than the Charlestown Town Council.