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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Breaking News - Charlestown announces deal made to buy Whalerock property

Charlestown will pay $2,114,415 for 78 acres by the end of August

By Will Collette

As you've been reading in Progressive Charlestown, the town has finally followed our advice to end the painful war over the proposed Whalerock wind turbine project on the 81 acre parcel that has been owned by developer Larry LeBlanc for the past 10 years. This project caused the CCA Party to undergo a civil war in 2009, divided the town and made a lot of local residents very crazy.

After a string of legal defeats suffered by the town and the neighbors, the only remaining path to ending the crisis to the satisfaction of most of the town was to negotiate a fair deal with LeBlanc to take and hold that land as town open space. Town Democrats weighed in to support that approach and I've been pushing it for months.

Today, the Town announced the deal and posted its sales agreement with LeBlanc's partner, James Barrows who will, in turn, fulfill his obligation to LeBlanc under a December 31, 2012 sales-leaseback agreement to pay LeBlanc $2 million for the property. The leaseback agreement also commits Barrows to pay LeBlanc $500,000 if he cancels the wind turbine project, which is obviously going to happen since Barrows is selling the land to the Town.

Barrows will also retain two 2-acre house lots carved out of the property. His proposal for that carve-out - integral to the success of this deal - is currently getting unprecedented Red Carpet treatment from Planning Commissar Ruth Platner and her Commission.

The Town's announcement, and the sales agreement, call for the closing of the deal on August 27. The Council apparently expects its review of the cost impact of the purchase, the actions of the relevant town commissions, and the public hearing it has scheduled on August 22nd to all be positive.

As I've written previously, the town has had the money to make its Whalerock nightmare disappear in the form of its voter-approved Open Space-Recreation Bond funds as well as excess surplus funds. We don't have as much excess surplus funds as we had before July 1, because the Town Council committed, unwisely in my opinion, to spend its excess surplus to re-pay the loan on the Police Station before the note was due.

The other step the Town Council seems to be skipping is the promised town vote on the matter. CCA Party Town Council Boss Tom Gentz committed to putting the purchase of the land, if a deal could be reached, before the voters, but with an August 27 closing, he has clearly scrapped that promise.

Gentz's promise of a taxpayer vote was a byproduct of two earlier land use controversies. The first was now-completed Town Beach facilities project that produced the fine new buildings at the two town beaches.

Though that project could have been financed through the voter-approved Open Space Recreation Bond, the CCA Party campaigned against it and ultimately, the beach project went to the voters as a free-standing item. Voters easily approved it, despite CCA Party opposition.

The second controversy was last year's "Y-Gate Scandal" where CCA Party leaders attempted to make a deal to spend up to $1 million in Town and state money to buy the abandoned Westerly YMCA campground on Watchaug Pond for the benefit of the non-residents with vacation properties in the Sonquipaug neighborhood and for the Charlestown Land Trust which would be given the property for free. The affair was marked by secret deals, phony appraisals, blatant lies and public outrage.

The Y-Gate scam eventually collapsed when broad-based resistance from town residents left the CCA Party with no option but to put the question before the voters in a referendum the CCA Party knew it would lose. So the Westerly YMCA found another buyer and left the CCA Party and the Charlestown Land Trust to lick their self-inflicted wounds.

This deal for the Whalerock land should, by precedent, also be subject to voter approval, approval I am sure it would get since support runs from town Democrats to the CCA Party and is a compellingly reason outcome to a long and agonizing struggle.

Putting aside Gentz's promises (we all know what they are worth) as well as recent precedents, there is an issue with this transaction and town Home Rule Charter:

[Amended 11-5-2002]
A. The town may acquire real and personal property within or without its corporate limits in fee simple or any lesser interest or estate, by purchase or lease, by condemnation for public use or by gift or devise, and may hold and manage the same; and may also take, hold and manage the same in trust for any non-religious charitable use.
B. Acquisition of real estate for a purchase price in excess of Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000) shall be approved by voters at a Budget Public Hearing/Financial Referendum, unless purchased with funds, in part, provided by government and/or non-profit agencies, or with previously approved bond funds or if acquired by grant, gift or bequest.

[Amended 11-7-2006]

If the cost of acquiring the land requires more than $50,000 in town funds over and above bond funds previously approved by voters, the purchase "shall be approved by voters at a Budget Public Hearing (which already took place) [or] Financial Referendum."

If Charlestown still has all $2 million in the Open Space-Recreation Bond left to use for this purchase, that still leaves them $114,415 short, not counting the transaction costs. Unless this section of the law means something else, it looks to me like a Referendum is mandatory. It's the law - I'm not making this up, nor am I trying to throw up a barrier to a deal that I favor.

Here's an irony: this section of the Town Charter would be even stronger and less ambiguous about when a town vote is needed, if a proposal for a Charter Revision promoted by the Ill Winders for last year's ballot had been adopted and passed. However, they couldn't figure out exactly what they wanted the revision to do and thus couldn't figure out the language, so we are left with a Charter provision that could be read at least a couple of different ways.

But suffice to say that Gentz promised a vote. Slattery promised a vote. And both of them demanded a vote in similar circumstances for the town beach facilities.

I know I would certainly vote "yes" and would urge others to do so, too. As much as I've been a major promoter of this buy-out, I do not support allowing the CCA Party leadership skirt the law and ignore provisions where they once demanded strict adherence. It's not only a matter of fairness, it's also the law.

Failing to follow our own laws in conducting this transaction could blow up on us if any one person decides to challenge the legality of the transaction in court. It won't be me, for sure, but in Charlestown, lawsuits do happen and it looks like, once again, Boss Gentz and the CCA Party have foolishly left the Town vulnerable to a legal challenge.