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Monday, April 2, 2012

Planning Commission attempts to defuse bomb

Charlestown Chutzpah, Part 2
By Will Collette

Click here for Part 1 

The Y-Gate scandal took a new twist at the March 28 Charlestown Planning Commission as the Commissioners considered a request from the Charlestown Land Trust for their help in crafting a “plausible” scenario for a new land appraisal to satisfy the state’s insistence that the Trust justify the land’s price before they release $367,000 in state funds.

For those of you who have been vacationing in Burkina Faso for the past six months, “Y-Gate” is the heist by the Charlestown Land Trust and the Westerly YMCA – aided and abetted by the Planning Commission and the Sonquipaug neighborhood association – to trick Charlestown taxpayers and the state of Rhode Island into ponying up $842,000 in state and town funds to acquire the Y’s trashed-out, abandoned campground on Watchaug Pond.

Of that sum, the largest share, $475,000, will come out of Charlestown taxpayers’ pockets, with the remaining $367,000 coming from the RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

Despite slick assurances from the Charlestown Land Trust, neither the state nor Charlestown gets much of substance for all this taxpayer money, which will in essence fund a private land transfer from the Westerly Y to the Land Trust.

For its $475,000, Charlestown gets a “conservation easement” that restricts public access to “by appointment only.” The Charlestown Land Trust told IRS that it places no value on the conservation easements it itself owns, and actually considers them a liability. But the Trust told the Town Council that $475,000 was a “bargain” for the easement to the land.

One of the more outrageous aspects of this thoroughly outrageous caper was the use of an appraisal that the appraiser himself said was based on hypothetical conditions “known to be false” to support the Westerly Y’s asking price of $735,000 for the land.

An admittedly bogus appraisal was actually OK with the Town Council majority who voted for this deal – I know this because I asked them. But apparently the state of Rhode Island is less gullible. DEM wants a new appraisal from the Charlestown Land Trust.

Close approximation of the letter from the Land Trust
On March 12, Land Trust Treasurer Russ Ricci sent a letter to Planning Commissar Ruth Platner asking for the Commission’s help “to assist our appraiser [to] establish a plausible alternative land use for the Property aside from open space if it were purchased by a private party for development purposes.”

Except, like the earlier bogus appraisal, purchase and development by a private party is not “plausible,” does not reflect reality and is still dishonest.

Instead of Russ Ricci, Karen Jarret, the new Land Trust President, represented the Trust before the Planning Commission. Where Ricci used downright false statements and b.s., Jarret's approach was to play naive and dumb, as you'll read later (and can hear for yourself on Clerkbase).

Commissar Ruth Platner began the discussion by reading the draft of a letter she proposed to send to the Land Trust in response to their request for help in advancing their Y-Gate scam. Her draft letter is not part of the meeting record, but the recording of the discussion is. The Clerkbase recording of the entire discussion begins HERE

In that letter, Platner referred to discussions the Commission held fourteen months ago, in January 2011, when Ted Veazey and the Y proposed to build a ten-home conservation development on the site of the campground. Veazey and the Y requested approval for a zoning change from “Open Space/Recreational” to “R-2, residential.”
One of the site plans for the rejected Veazey project

Platner’s letter, in the most oblique possible language, referred to the minutes of the January 19, 2011, meeting as the answer to the Land Trust’s request for a “plausible alternative land use,” as the Commission had given a favorable advisory opinion on the Veazey project provided a number of conditions – later deemed unacceptable by Veazey – were met.

As soon as Platner finished reading her proposed letter, there was an uproar – indeed, a rare rebellion – from her usually compliant commissioners. Both George Tremblay and Gordon Foer spoke strongly against the Planning Commission having anything further to do with the Y-Gate caper.

Attica - Attica! Planning Commissioners rise
up against Platner
Town Planner Ashley Hahn-Morris also suggested that it would be a bad idea for the Commission to get involved.

All three noted that the Veazey development scenario was not a “plausible alternative land use” because that project, as appealing as it was, went down in flames.

There are no developers waiting in the wings to try once again to turn the Y camp junkyard into homes.

Platner kept saying that all she was suggesting in her letter was that the Land Trust use the Planning Commission’s minutes, but her own commissioners told her that it just wasn’t a real scenario - and not honest.

The commissioners discussed the concept of “highest and best use,” which is the standard the Land Trust wants to use in its new appraisal. Commissioner George Tremblay noted that a residential development might not be the “highest and best use” and suggested using “an amusement park on the waterfront” or some other commercial waterfront scenario, if the Land Trust wanted another appraisal based on unreal, but theoretically possible, land uses.

Commissioner Jim Abbott said he felt the Planning Commission should not get involved by answering the Land Trust’s question. When some of the Commissioners thought that perhaps the Land Trust ought to use Veazey’s final offer to the Westerly YMCA as the “highest and best value,” Abbott said that might not reflect reality, either. He said that it was possible that the Y’s asking price and Veazey’s offer might simply be a result of both parties “being out of their minds.”

Land Trust President Karen Jarret said that she thought DEM wanted a new appraisal because the appraisal figure that came out of their first appraisal was almost exactly the amount the Land Trust was requesting from DEM and the Town. She said, “The state is watching its funds.” Too bad the Charlestown Town Council isn’t doing likewise.

Jarret also claimed she wasn’t exactly sure what the state wanted, begging the question “why don’t you go and ask the state?” But I suppose with a caper like Y-Gate, you really don’t want to ask the state too many questions. Hear Jarret’s contribution to the discussion beginning HERE

Actually, between the state DEM grant and the gift from Charlestown taxpayers, the Land Trust stands to collect $842,000 when they plan to pay the Westerly Y only $730,000 for the land. No one asked where the excess $112,000 is going to go. Maybe there’s some open space of interest in the Cayman Islands.

Platner finally recognized that her Commissioners did not like her letter, so she started blaming the Land Trust for asking “the wrong question.” She said that the Planning Commission cannot give the Land Trust a “plausible scenario” but can only reflect back on what they had done about the Y camp in the past (i.e., the discussion at the January 19, 2011, meeting).

Other Commissioners noted that the January 19, 2011 minutes don’t reflect reality either since the land use they advised never happened. As both Town Planner Hahn-Morris, Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero and Commissioner Gordon Foer reminded the Commission, there were many steps that took place after that meeting, key among them the Town Council’s vote to deny the requested zoning change, which killed the Veazey project dead.

Commissioner Tremblay said he hoped the Commission would take no action on the Land Trust’s request, but Platner noted sardonically that it was too late – that the Commission was indeed taking action by discussing the request. By holding the discussion, Platner said, the Commission was creating both a written and recorded record. There is, however, a big difference between talking about a request for a dishonest letter and actually writing the dishonest letter. 

Before the Planning Commission decided to take no formal action, Council Boss Tom Gentz, who also serves as Council liaison to the Commission, stepped up to the podium and advocated for the Council to at least try to give the Charlestown Land Trust something they could use. Note that Gentz was part of the Town Council majority that voted to give the Land Trust $475,000 based on its last fictitious appraisal. But Gentz’s appeal was too little too late.

The Charlestown Land Trust did not get what it wanted, something they are probably not used to. Land Trust President Jarret told the Planning Commission that she felt the state needed some government body, such as the Planning Commission, to “validate” its approach to pegging a value to the Y camp land.

Prior to Y-Gate blossoming into a full-blown scandal, the Land Trust might have been able to get the Planning Commission to bark like a dog. But listen to Clerkbase to what rebellious and clearly skeptical Commissioners sound like. This is about as close as this Planning Commission has ever come to giving Ruth Platner a “no confidence” statement as anything I have ever heard.

The Land Trust will either have to go it alone, and risk getting nailed by the state for fraud, or find some other patsy to give them political cover.

Now, in addition to watching what the state court does with Dr. John Donoghue’s lawsuit seeking to enjoin the town from giving up $475,000, we’ll see how readily RIDEM gives up $367,000 in state funds for this scam.