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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

No good deed goes unpunished

Planning Commission tears into children’s play shelter at Ninigret Park
By Will Collette
Proposed play shelter - the latest big threat to Charlestown's security?

If only the shelter had been slightly smaller. 

The Charlestown Parks and Recreation Department came to the Planning Commission with its latest improvement for Ninigret Park, a play shelter for children (and others), intended primarily to serve as a play area for the town’s summer camp when the weather is bad.

The money for the project comes from a large state DEM grant so the town can make Ninigret’s facilities cleaner and more handicapped accessible, and from revenues the town has collected from the handful of permissible activities at the Park. Topping off the funding is more than $20,000 worth of free labor from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 57, lined up by Parks & Recreation Commission chair Tim Quillen.

Sorry, kids, you are NOT a Charlestown priority.
Certainly NOT a CCA priority.
The structure is an concrete pad with four steel pillars at the corners that hold up a hurricane-rated metal roof. It would be set up at the site used previously for a large canvas pavillion.

It has no walls and is set flush to the ground to make it safe and accessible. It will allow summer camp children to continue to play even when it's raining. 

But, as you read on, you will see that the health and safety of the children is less important than the concerns raised by some of the neighbors and by Planning Commissar Ruth Platner.

Two bureaucratic hitches made this elegantly simple and clearly sensible project far more complicated than it would have been in any sane universe. First, the structure is 30’ x 84’ covering 2,520 square feet. If it had only been 2,000 square feet or less, the plan could have been handled administratively by the Town Planner. But those extra square feet triggered the requirement that it go to the Planning Commission for approval.

The second hitch came when Town Zoning Officer Joe Warner suggested that maybe the state Fire Marshall needed to be consulted to determine whether the totally nonflammable, wide-open structure used only during the daytime needed illuminated fire exit signs or even a sprinkler system. Oh, Joe, say it ain't so!

Oy vey.

For more than an hour, the plucky Planning Commission pored over the plans, apparently incapable of grasping that:
  1. It’s a concrete pad, four steel posts and a metal roof. 
  2. It doesn’t actually have any exits — or an entrance, for that matter — because it has no walls and... 
  3. It’s nonflammable but even if... 
  4. The fire marshal determines that it needs exit signs... 
  5. These exit signs will not threaten Charlestown’s dark skies as Planning Commissar Ruth Platner kept obsessing.
Once this project was advertised and notices were sent out, it attracted irate Arnolda residents who hate the idea of anything happening in Ninigret Park. Especially music. Especially involving kids. Especially something that's fun.

It was as if a tourist bus from the United Kingdom unloaded in Charlestown as people with distinct UK accents – ranging from aristocratic Frances Topping’s elegant speech to Scottish brogues stepped up to the podium to challenge the project. 

Topping, by the way, is in line to become a new Planning Commission member, as she is one of the five CCA Party candidates for Planning who are running unopposed in the November 4 election. Sounds like she'll fit in nicely.

Jay waits for a chance to respond to the
barrage of attacks
Topping had the brilliant idea of adding pull-down curtains, which Commission member Connie Baker also thought was a swell idea. 

Except for a few problems:

  • Pull-down curtains would cost tens of thousands of dollars (they had checked) which are not in the budget; 
  • Such curtains are very vulnerable to damage or vandalism;
  • Because the structure is large and storm-proof, there’s plenty of room for the summer camp kids to get shelter, and 
  • Such curtains would of course potentially trap people inside in an emergency (and thus actually require the above-mentioned emergency exits).
Parks and Recreation Director Jay Primiano stood at or near the podium throughout the one hour-plus ordeal, trying to explain the need and uses for this structure. 

The expat Ninigret neighbors took the podium to decry the structure as offering another source of trouble from loud, drunken yahoos who seem, if you believe their testimony, to be a constant bane on the peaceful and contemplative existence of Arnolda.

Primiano tried to explain that Ninigret Park is closed at sunset and is right across the road from the Charlestown Police Department (CPD), to which the ladies said the CPD was "useless."

I didn't make it up - it's on
the video
After a long “dialogue” along these lines, it was finally made clear that their objections were really about Rhythm and Roots and festival-goers in years past who made noise after the concert was over. 

The Arnoldians made it clear they were against people “playing their little Victrolas – I don’t want any noise from there!” Again, the ladies said the CPD was useless though they admitted their issues were from at least two or more years ago. Victrolas?

The Arnoldians went nuts again when Jay Primiano would not give them a guarantee that the structure would never be used after dark. 

He said that he could not rule that out because there might be an event where the town can rent it out – as an example, he said Frosty Drew Observatory, which is next door to the site, might want to use it for a fund-raising event. Even Rhythm & Roots, despite being hated by Arnolda, might want to rent it.

There was just no satisfying the disgruntled Arnolda ladies. Finally, they reached the point where even Ruth Platner couldn’t stand it anymore. She stopped them by noting that the Planning Commission did not have jurisdiction over usage, only over whether a structure or land use conforms to Charlestown’s zoning ordinance. 

That provoked a return to the podium by the irate ladies who wanted a detailed explanation about who was responsible for what in Charlestown, when meetings were held and how they could find out about them.

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero backed Platner up, restating that the Planning Commission’s jurisdiction did not give them any authority to grant the disgruntled Arnoldians’ wishes. He noted that any actual uses of the facility would have to be approved by the Town Council, and that they had a chance to bring their complaints to them.

Platner: there shall be NO lights!
Having finally silenced the angry Arnoldians, Commissar Platner could then focus on her pet peeve about the project - the possibility that the state Fire Marshal might order exit/emergency lights. 

Ruth Platner was adamant that if the state Fire Marshal mandated these lights, even though there is no need for them in an entirely open, wall-less structure, the project would have to come back before the Planning Commission. She wants to make sure any mandated exit lights don't violate Charlestown’s “dark sky” ordinance. I am not making this up.

Platner was unmoveable about the lights, as if even acknowledging that exit lights are not the same as skyward-aiming floodlights like, for example, those at the home of new, CCA-appointed Zoning Board member Joe Quadrato’s house, would undermine the whole dark sky ordinance.

In the end, the Planning Commission approved the project but without lighting. If the state Fire Marshal mandates emergency exit lights, Primiano will have to bring the project back for another round with the Spanish Inquisition. Ruthie got her way.

Commissioner Brandon Cleary (who is a CDTC candidate for Town Council and a professional firefighter in Cranston) noted that if emergency lights are needed, then they are needed.

But since they are not really needed, the odds are the Fire Marshal will not require them. Even so, we’re talking about your standard variety lighted “Exit” sign, which poses no dark sky issue given that it would of necessity have to be mounted inside and under the roof.

During this whole ridiculous process, Town Councilor George Tremblay, as Council liaison to the Planning Commission, was sitting in the audience next to Tim Quillen, who was watching in dismay. Tremblay poked Tim in the ribs from time to time and asked Tim if he had had enough yet. Very funny, George.

In a way, it is funny, but not in a good way. Like watching someone do something really idiotic that leads them to crash into something and hurt themselves. Or a public display of pulling the legs off a fly. Or a frog.

But I guess that pretty much sums up our town government after six years of total control by the Charlestown Citizens Alliance. The CCA Party is great at running candidates for town office whose primary objective is to prevent town residents from using town facilities especially Ninigret Park. 

If, by the way, you think I am making any of this up, watch the Clerkbase video for yourself. 

When you watch the video, take note that once again, the first part of their meeting is cut off. Remember the recent flap about the Attorney General’s decision that the Planning Commission had violated the state Open Meetings Act? Platner wrote that it really wasn't all that much of a violation because Planning Commission meetings are videotaped.

Except when they're not. It used to be that Planning Commission meetings didn't make it onto Clerkbase because someone would "accidentally" pull the plug. Lately, the Commission only blacks out portions of meetings, as they did with this one.
Only two items on the agenda - and they black out the controversial one.
The CCA Party promised open, transparent and competent government

But one black-out really stands out. The Planning Commission had "discussion and potential action" on the Attorney General's ruling on their October 1 agenda. If you go to the Clerkbase video, you will discovery that this part of the meeting was somehow left out of the recording. 

Fortunately, the Planning Commission did not black out the priceless session on the play shelter  – you can see the entire mishigas, starting at the 18 minute mark and droning on until 1:17. Click here for the Clerkbase recording for the meeting)
Except you only get to see what Platner allows you to see