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Monday, April 16, 2012

Who owns Ninigret Park, Part 2

Hint: it’s not the US Department of the Interior
Click to enlarge
Ninigret, showing the Wildlife Refuge, the
172.4 acres owned by Charlestown that is
subject to Interior regulations, and the 55
acres owned by Charlestown free and clear
By Will Collette

Read Part 1 HERE

For the past month, Charlestown has been in an uproar over the alarm bells sounded by the two CCA-affiliated members of the Town Council, the President of the Council, Boss Tom Gentz, and the Vice-President, Deputy Dan Slattery.

These two councilors claimed that according to historical records, the Interior Department has the right to veto town uses of Ninigret Park and that they had done so twice in the past 15 months.

Boss Gentz is afraid that if we continue to offend the Interior Department, they will take Ninigret Park back.

Deputy Dan is outraged that the town has been violating its “legal, ethical and moral obligations” to yield to the feds on all things Ninigret.

Except Gentz and Slattery are wrong about the facts. And at the April 9 Town Council meeting, they were confronted with those facts.

Ninigret during World War II when President George
H.W. Bush took his pilot training
The place we all know as Charlestown’s Ninigret Park and the adjacent federal Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge was an old World War II Navy pilot training base until the early 1970s, when the Navy decommissioned the base.

At least 18 non-military uses were proposed for the Navy land. These uses included construction of a nuclear power plant (seriously!), housing developments, mixed use, etc. The current uses – as a federal wildlife refuge and a town park – were among the 18 alternatives, and ultimately the alternative selected by the General Services Administration as the best use of the land.

Thus, Charlestown acquired a portion of the old Navy base. According to the deed, the size of that property is 172.4 acres. That land could only be used in a manner that “is not inconsistent with” the adjacent Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge.

Read about the history of the Ninigret land, including the 18 alternatives, the final decision and the deed that awarded Charlestown its 172.4 acre share by clicking here.

Separately, the town also purchased 55 acres that is zoned municipal and that the town has used for active recreation, including our summer festivals and events. That 55-acre parcel is not subject to Interior Department oversight, control or regulation. The Interior Department has no rights to approve or veto town use of that land, as they have long acknowledged.

From a July 1994 meeting between Charlestown officials and the Interior Department
But, instigated by Deputy Dan and other mischievous town leaders (Councilor Lisa DiBello admitted at the April 9 meeting that she was one of them), the Interior Department did get involved, not once but twice, issuing stern letters to Town Administrator Bill DiLibero.

One letter vetoed the installation of three municipal wind turbines – turbines that, according to Jeff Broadhead of the Washington County Regional Planning Council, the conduit for the federal funding for the turbines, were to “be located on a 55-acre tract that is owned free and clear by the town, and is not subject to recreational or park use restrictions as are the other parcels.”

From Jeff Broadhead's March 15, 2011 letter

The second Interior Department letter vetoed the installation of a “lighted commercial football stadium.” Except no one had proposed any such thing; the proposal was to light existing sports fields, nearly all of which are in the town-owned 55 acres.

In both instances, the veto of Elyse LaForest, Boston regional head of the Interior Department Lands to Parks Program, only applies to the 172.4 acre parcel where Interior retains some rights and NOT the town-owned 55 acres. In the case of the municipal wind turbines, Town Administrator DiLibero asked if the Interior Department would allow the turbines to be sited on the 172.4 acre tract; in the case of the lighting, some lights would have gone on the town's 55 acres. There was potential overlap into the 172.4 acres when or if the town expanded its active recreation sites.

This is very different than the way the issues have been portrayed by Boss Gentz and Deputy Dan Slattery. They have presented the issue as if we have no rights in any part of Ninigret Park other than those that the Interior Department deigns to grant us. It is true that Interior can say no to town land uses in the 172.4 acres that they feel are inconsistent with the wildlife refuge – subject to challenge and appeal, of course, as well as revision.

As Deb Carney noted at the April 9 meeting, Elyse LaForest herself came to a meeting in Charlestown in 2002 when Charlestown was considering withdrawing from Chariho and constructing its own town schools on the 55-acre town-owned portion of Ninigret.

October 2002 - Interior recognizes it has no jurisdiction over the Town's 55 acres

At that time, Ms. LaForest correctly noted that the Interior Department had nothing to say and no authority over those 55 acres, though she would have such authority over the proposed school project if it spilled over into the 172.4 acres of the town’s Ninigret Park property that is under Interior authority and regulation.

At that same 2002 meeting, LaForest affirmed that Interior intended to "regulate" town use of the 172.4 acres that were under Interior jurisdiction with a light hand, intervening only when the town asked her to.

So who did it? Who asked the Interior Department to intervene? Who fed the Interior Department false information? Who tricked the Interior Department into stepping into a town political mess where they had no authority or jurisdiction? Or were they tricked at all? Did our local federal overseer, Charlie Vandemoer, decide to get into the fray, and then involve his boss in Boston?

In 2011, we know that Town Administrator Bill DiLibero called and also wrote to Ms. LaForest to ask for permission to consider sites for the municipal wind turbines in the 172.4 acres.

Deputy Dan Slattery
We know Deputy Dan played a role in bringing the Interior Department into the sports lighting mess because his name is on the cover letter in the 50-page “historical document.” We know Boss Tom Gentz did because he said at the March 12 Town Council meeting that he had talked to LaForest. We know Lisa DiBello did because she admitted it at the April 9 meeting.

For these Council members to decry the damage done to our relationship with the Interior Department is like the kid who murdered his parents and asked the court for mercy because he was an orphan. Don’t stir the pot unless you intend to eat the soup.

We also know that Councilor Marge Frank talked to LaForest – Marge said so at the March 12 meeting but was ruled out of order and silenced by Boss Gentz, who had decreed there would be no discussion or debate on sports lighting at Ninigret based on concern that we might upset the Interior Department. Marge was prevented from talking about the errors and misinformation LaForest had received.

But Marge had her say at the April 9 meeting, noting that she tried to correct Ms. LaForest’s misinformation and had also asked LaForest for a new letter that addressed the correct information about the Parks and Recreation Department’s proposal for lights. Councilor Frank noted that she has not received an answer.

The question Gentz, Slattery and DiBello should answer forthwith is: When you talked to Ms. LaForest, were you confused about the differences between the town's 55-acre parcel versus the town's 172.4 acre parcel? Or did you give her misinformation?

You also owe Charlestown taxpayers and voters an explanation for why you seem so hell-bent on overturning the existing town Master Plan for Ninigret Park, neutering the Parks and Recreation Commission, and giving the federal government control over the exclusively town-owned 55 acres of Ninigret Park.

You owe this town an apology.