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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Charlestown’s new water war

When is open space not open space?
How do we protect our water now and in the future?
By Will Collette
Hydrophobic Water animated GIF

If you want to see Charlestown and particularly the CCA Party-controlled Town Council at its very worst, you should watch the grilling given to Ken Burke, director of the RI Water Resources Board, at the Council’s June 9 meeting (click here[1]). 

The Water Resources Board (WRB) is currently in negotiations to buy a seven acre, undeveloped block of land on Genwood Drive south of Old Post Road privately owned by the Glista family[2]. Our CCA Party Town Council majority is deeply disturbed by this.

Led by Town Council Boss Tom Gentz and his Deputy Dan Slattery, the idea of setting aside this land as a potential future water source was attacked from every angle, but as you can see and hear for yourself, the attacks were based on a toxic mix of ignorance and xenophobia.
The Slattery and Gentz Tag Team

The two-hour auto-da-fé started benignly enough with CCA Party Councilor George Tremblay as de facto prosecutor. He ran through a list of prepared questions: how does the WRB operate and will they send Charlestown water to other places, such as South Kingstown, Westerly or Benghazi?

Even though most of Tremblay’s questions were based on false assumptions about the mission and purpose of the WRB, the Q&A was at least conducted in a reasonable tone.

That changed immediately upon Deputy Dan Slattery taking the mike and going into full mad-dog froth. He spun fanciful yarns about how this was some Benghazi-style plot to convert Charlestown into one giant water pump for the rest of the state.

He wanted to know exactly what kind of water pumping, treatment and piping system would be constructed, how many gallons it would draw, how many miles of pipe would be laid, how much each component would cost, how much money the WRB would be taking from Charlestown and exactly when will Charlestown residents would be shipped off to death camps.

Clueless Boss Gentz then chimed in, saying that he had already looked on the internet and had done the math (that’s always a bad sign) and deduced that the WRB intended to suck out all of Charlestown’s water to supply said water to some 2,800 households in parts unknown. Probably in Benghazi.

You really have to view and listen to the Clerkbase recording for yourself to get the full effect. Except for the Benghazi and death camp parts, which are not explicitly stated, but might as well be, I think I am fairly describing the CCA Boys’ misinformed and overwrought assault.

Burke tries to explain

WRB Director Ken Burke
WRB Director Burke tried to gently explain that the WRB has an interest in using state funds earmarked for South County – not town money – to acquire land that holds good water that our coastal communities will need in the future. The WRB does not build water systems, at least not for over 20 years, even though they do have the authority to do so. Their mission is to acquire and hold the land.

They also do the scientific work to determine the quality and quantity of the water and how much of a water resource can be used without a negative impact on the environment (e.g. without depleting the aquifer or harming local features such as wetlands and salt ponds). To that end, the WRB has taken two test borings and hopes to have hard data on water quality and quantity in about three weeks. They have not, contrary to false claims by Gentz and Slattery, drilled a well or anything else at the site.

At some point in the future, when the need arises, the town or some newly created water district or non-profit – and not, as the CCA Boys feared, some nasty developer – may come to the WRB with a proposal to develop the water resource. At that point, all the state and local land use authorities, laws and rules and regulations kick in.

At that point, and that point alone, the discussion about the actual water system – and who pays for it – takes place. Burke said that it is often a municipality that takes that action, although it could also be a local water district. Burke noted that Charlestown already has several such local public water districts – I wrote about two of them here that masquerade as fire districts. Then there’s another water district in Quonnie and another in Shannock. Charlestown is no stranger to public water systems[3].

Boss Gentz expressed total amazement that there were any such water districts within Charlestown’s borders, which tells me that he doesn’t read Progressive Charlestown or doesn’t understand what he reads or is just plain stupid. It also tells me that Gentz only knows what other people, especially Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, tell him.

There's much more after this photo of the area in question.

Preserving this land for open space - only over the CCA Party's dead body. Note the quarry site to the right of the photo (Google Earth screenshot)
The area around Cross’ Mills where the Glista property is located is densely settled and its water wells are very vulnerable to depletion and contamination. This proposal provides Cross’ Mills with an insurance policy against that eventuality.

Indeed, one of the most useful remarks from the public came from Peter Ogle, chair of the Charlestown Wastewater Management Commission, who said he was “thrilled” at the prospect of the WRB acquiring the Glista property, noting that with sea level rise, many of the wells along Charlestown’s southern coast are in danger of becoming “salted out.” Mr. Ogle had testified at earlier Town Council meetings that high nitrate levels are also showing up in an alarming number of wells along the coast[4]. It's clear the CCA Boys weren't paying attention

Benghazi! Benghazi!

What Slattery and Gentz think the Water Resources Board
will do to Charlestown residents
Slattery and Gentz put on their Tea Party hats to claim this plan is the government taking Charlestown property. Then somehow the WRB will force Charlestown residents, especially north of One, who have good wells to pay to hook up to this new Charlestown Water Supply. This plot will, as Slattery put it, force residents to pay for water they now get for free.

The main flaw to Slattery’s vision of the WRB water-boarding Charlestown residents is that it is total fiction. Burke tried his best to point out the half dozen or so reasons why Slattery’s over-active imagination was concocting improbable scenarios. 

I would have simply said Slattery was lying, but that’s just me.

Burke also debunked the CCA Boys’ concern about Charlestown’s water being exported to Benghazi by noting that the CRMC “would not allow” water to be shipped to a different watershed. That made the idea of water from Genwood Drive being piped to Westerly implausible and even made it unlikely that any of the water would go north of One.

Having all their inflammatory talking points go down in flames, the CCA Boys could only settle on harping about the WRB’s failure to give them advance notice about their impending land purchase. Slattery said they were “blind-sided.”

It’s true that Burke didn’t, as Boss Gentz put it, “pick up the phone and give us a head’s up,” leaving Boss Gentz “flabbergasted and flustered.” But for Boss Gentz, that is his normal state. Charlestown may run out of potable water sometime in the future, but one thing we have in abundance is village idiots.

Burke said that he had talked to the Town Planner a few years ago and was told Charlestown had no interest in the idea of the WRB acquiring water-bearing land. He also noted that in this case, the WRB doesn’t need the town’s approval to use state money to buy private land. Toward that end, the WRB has signed a Purchase & Sales Agreement with the Glista family contingent on the tests showing that the water resource meets the WRB’s standards.

George Tremblay likes his tea hot!
Tremblay said that he didn’t like the smell of the deal because it seemed to him like RhodeMapRI. That's a long-term planning initiative by the RI Statewide Planning agency that Tremblay[5] seems to have confused with the United Nations’ Agenda 21, which is one of the Tea Party’s paranoid fantasies.

Planning Commissar Ruth Platner’s one public contribution to this discussion was to bring up a bullet point in the WRB’s long-term plan which was to try to secure some new water resource north of Route One near Pasquiset Pond that would be a hedge against water problems in that area, including some parts of South Kingstown. 

Platner’s actual contribution to this discussion was to load up the CCA Boys with so much misinformation that they would turn a good and wholesome thing for Charlestown into some nefarious plot. Thank you, Ruthie.

Platner rehearses Gentz on his script
As an aside, it fascinates me to see Boss Gentz use Platner’s talking points time and again. He delivers the kind of half-cocked stuff she doesn’t want to deliver herself, has no real grasp of the subject and no evidence. Each time, he comes off looking like the fool. Yet, he keeps doing it. If Gentz ever leaves the Council, Platner will have to find and train another meat puppet.

So back on topic, after all the sturm und drang, the only punch the CCA Boys landed was a glancing blow – Burke’s failure to kowtow to them before signing the P&S agreement with the Glistas, even though the WRB has no legal obligation to do so. And Burke agreed to participate in a future Town Council “workshop” even though it seemed like the CCA Boys had pissed on his leg for two hours and then asked him if he’d like to come back and get some more[6].

If it was me, my response would sound a lot like “lucky you,” except it would mean quite the opposite, if you catch my drift.

Frank Glista calls out the CCA Party on hypocrisy
Toward the end of this two-hour “debate,” Frank Glista finally took the podium and blasted the CCA Boys and Platner for “hypocrisy.” He gave a brief history of the land, which was purchased by his grandfather right after World War II in 1945. That land has now passed on to Frank and his siblings.

They tried to sell the land to conservation groups, the town and DEM in the past to be set aside as open space, but without success. Then they sought to develop the land into a subdivision, again without success and returned to the idea of preserving the land as open space. This time, they were referred to the WRB and that sequence of events led to that June 9 confrontation.

Frank raises the question: when is open space not open space, and offered the answer that it depends on who owns the land. Frank saw Boss Gentz about to try to cut him off and pre-empted him by saying that he was sick of being cut off and denied his right to speak and that he was going to speak.

Frank said this transaction is about preserving an unspoiled, undeveloped piece of land which holds an increasingly rare commodity – clean, abundant water – and that it was not about the Glista family. It was undeveloped when his grandfather bought it almost 70 years ago.

He cited a 1972 study on water resources in Charlestown that issued a dire warning back then, over 40 years ago, that clean water south of One was going to become a critical need and suggested that Charlestown should do what the WRB now proposes to do.
One thing that Frank could have said, but didn’t – and it’s something for us all to think about – is this: since when does the damned Charlestown Town Council (or the Planning Commission) think it has the right to intervene on a person’s right to sell their own damned private property?[7]
Councilor Lisa DiBello (who seemed to be the only Council member to get what this plan was really all about) and Boss Gentz wanted to know if the transaction could be postponed. The P&S agreement has a 90-day deadline on it.

WRB Director Burke said that it was not his decision alone to make and that the seller, i.e. the Glistas, would also have to agree to extend the contract. Then, after all that came before, Boss Gentz had the unmitigated gall to ask Frank Glista if he would be willing to postpone the deal. Instead of telling them what I would have said (which is unprintable here), Frank said he would have to consult with the other family members.

Casper Fear animated GIF
The CCA Party lives on fear
One of the least attractive aspects of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, among all their odious character traits such as hypocrisy, is their xenophobia. In that, they resemble the Tea Party in their fear of “the Other,” whether it’s people who live in neighboring towns, upstate or the Narragansett Indian Tribe. There are their people who mainly live along the coastal waters and then there’s everyone else. There are people like them and there is the enemy.

While the CCA Party seems to be afraid that someone will “steal” our water, this is a case where they are using all the wrong reasons to fight a proposal that will actually preserve that water. Plus, they twisted their own open space rhetoric beyond all recognition – and, I submit, forfeit their claim to be the champions of open space.

Charlestown’s water does not magically appear from an exclusively Charlestown source. Indeed, we are tapping into a vast underground “river” that reaches us from far inland. Burke tried to gently explain that while we may think that the water we pump is exclusively our water, it actually belongs to all the people. That water is no more ours than the air we breathe.

Whether the Know-Nothings in the CCA Party accept it or not, we are all interconnected.


[1] If you have problems accessing Clerkbase from Internet Explorer, click here for how to resolve the problem temporarily.

[2] Council member Paula Andersen (D) immediately (and correctly) recused herself and left the Council podium as soon as this agenda item came up since she is married to Frank Glista.

[3] At the Planning Commission’s meeting on May 28, Planning Commissar Ruth Platner said she opposed the acquisition of the Glista property by the Water Resources Board to hold as open space because that inevitably will lead to a public water supply which will inevitably lead to more high-density development which will lead to more kids and the end of the world as we know it. 

Don’t believe me? Click here for the Clerkbase video – sorry but Planning doesn’t bother to index the Clerkbase video. That would make it too easy for people to see what’s going on. 

Platner doesn’t explain how, when Charlestown already has at least four public water systems, we don’t already have the kind of development she fears. Unless she’s talking about Quonnie or Shady Harbor.

[4] Mr. Ogle has been sounding the alarm about deteriorating water supplies along the coast for years. Obviously, the CCA Boys and Platner didn’t get the memo. He has also been part of the Quonnie Water District for years and said so at the Council meeting. He is probably Charlestown's most knowledgeable resource person on water quality issues, except perhaps for our town's pro, Matt Dowling. 

[5] Tremblay has been going on and on about RhodeMap RI for months. The Tea Party, John Birch Society and other assorted wingnuts have been going on about Agenda 21 for years. "Agenda 21" is a non-binding, voluntary United Nations policy calling for sustainable development. 

[6] Former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev once said "You spit in their face and they call it dew".

[7] Interestingly, one of the issues Deputy Dan brought up was the Constitutional issue called “takings.” This is based on the clause in the Fifth Amendment that prohibits the government from taking a person’s property without due process or compensation. 

Slattery tried to say that the WRB might be committing a takings violation against the neighbors of the Glista property. However, if anyone here has a “takings” claim, it is the Glista family if this Town Council stops them from selling their own property. Which would serve Deputy Dan just right.