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Thursday, September 10, 2020

Another land scam brewing in Charlestown

Is SPA-Gate going to become Charlestown’s big 2020 scandal?

By Will Collette

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) loves to spend your money to buy over-priced land from its cronies, whether we need the land or not.

These deals are almost always brokered by CCA Party leader and Planning Commission chair Ruth Platner and she has another deal in the works - buying a small parcel of land from the Sachem Passage Association for almost 7 times its assessed value. The deal is very much like one we've seen before. 

Tom Ferrio and I started Progressive Charlestown in January 2011. One of the first big issues we covered in depth was “Y-Gate,” a scheme to spend over $800,000 in Charlestown and state tax dollars on a derelict campground on Watchaug Pond that had been abandoned by the politically-connected YMCA of Westerly.

The scheme was pushed by the mostly non-resident Sonquipaug neighborhood who wanted the town to buy the land as an extension of their small vacation house backyards, as well as CCA insiders connected to the Westerly Y. “Y-Gate” was marked by secrecy, sneaky backroom deals, personal attacks and lies. Ruth Platner quarterbacked the scheme.

Central to the Y-Gate scam was a totally bogus appraisal that even the appraiser said was  based on assumptions “known to be false.”

In the end, the Y-Gate caper ended in a storm of public outrage at the CCA-controlled Town Council, but its legacy lingers on.

More often than not, Charlestown’s open space purchases are for parcels that are over-priced and bought from owners with CCA connections.

Almost a decade after Y-Gate, Charlestown is considering another remarkably similar land deal: spending almost half a million dollars of state and Charlestown money for a parcel scarcely worth $60,000 but owned by the CCA Party client group, the Sachem Passage Association (SPA).

In 2011, we had Y-Gate. In 2020, we have SPA-Gate.

You may recall the SPA (using the nom de guerre “Ill Wind”) as the group that fought a losing court battle to block construction of Whalerock, two industrial-sized wind turbines on the Charlestown moraine overlooking Route One.

Whalerock was a bad project, highly unpopular, but fighting in court against a proposed “LULU” (“locally undesirable land use”) is the worst strategy. I know that from 20 years of experience in fighting LULUs around the country.

The SPA leaders in that fight also decided to make environmental health the core of their raison d’etre, citing plainly silly pseudo-science to claim all manner of health problems connected to wind turbines. If you want to know where Donald Trump got his “windmills cause cancer” nonsense, just check the SPA’s sources for its health claims.

As SPA’s case started circling the drain, they drew Charlestown into the court fight. Then, when that failed, SPA prevailed on Charlestown for a bail-out. So in 2013, Charlestown bought the Whalerock property for $2.1 million.

Now they’re back with their hand out. On April 24, Ron Areglado sent an “Open Space Inquiry” (below) on behalf of SPA asking the town to buy a piece of land from them currently assessed by Charlestown at $61,900. Areglado was leader of the erstwhile “Ill Wind” group, served on the Chariho School Committee under the CCA banner and is running as the CCA Party’s candidate for Town Moderator.

The land is Lot 5-95-5, 4.27 acres (which includes the access road) on Foster Cove. It’s a pretty piece of land – I’ve seen it – but it is over-valued. The $426,000 SPA “appraisal” is based, according to the appraiser, on the “extraordinary assumption” that a two bedroom house could be built there even though the appraiser admits this is virtually impossible.

On June 1, town Tax Assessor Ken Swain was asked by town planner Jane Weidman to explain why Ken had assessed the property at such a low figure ($61,900) – especially when compared to the SPA’s $426,000 appraisal. Ken responded the same day, detailing exactly why the property is only worth $61,900. Here is his response:

Planner Weidman sent a memo on August 5 (below) to town administrator Mark Stankiewicz, Council President Virginia Lee and Planning Commissar Platner, laying out the next steps including the town’s commissioning of an appraisal based on real world conditions

Those real world conditions include:

  • The probability that none of the regulatory agencies (Charlestown, CRMC, FEMA, etc.) would ever allow a two-bedroom house to be built there;
  • Constraints imposed by the settlement in “SPA v. Ron and Mary Russo,” (CA WC-2014-0918);
  • Unknown internal SPA issues including the fact that every SPA member has an individual deeded right of access to the land and would need to sign off, and last but not least;
  • The high likelihood this property will be one of the first to go underwater due to climate change-driven sea level rise.

Despite all these dubious distinctions, Planning Commissar Platner is laying the groundwork for a big push to buy this property. She recently wrote an op-ed extolling the virtues of unlimited purchases of open space. Open space ├╝ber alles.

She uses an old rhetorical trick called the “Straw Man” argument – setting up a false premise and then debating it.

In her letter to the editor, she starts with this:

Consultants in 2016 looked at the remaining land in Charlestown available to be developed for housing and determined that, if no more land is preserved, several thousand more units of housing will be built and our year-round population will triple. (Emphasis added). Occurring mostly in northern Charlestown, that development will dramatically alter the character of our community, destroy some of Rhode Island’s most critical forests that provide wildlife habitat and clean our water and the air we breathe, will reduce our attraction for tourism, and will significantly raise tax rates.

In other words, Armageddon. There is a fundamental flaw in this statement – just because something CAN be done does not mean it WILL be done. Platner would have you believe that every inch of undeveloped land will be turned into high-density housing bringing in hordes of (gasp!) people from outside.

You can’t logically jump from “possibility” to “certainty” and expect to be taken seriously.

The CCA Party and Ruth Platner in particular have a long history of exaggerated claims of threats that could happen, but probably won’t. Fear has driven their election success and like Donald Trump, they are hoping it will work for them again in 2020.

In my article on why we must challenge and end institutional racism in Charlestown, I noted that this is the kind of coded rhetoric – frankly, lies – that Charlestown uses to keep “people from Providence” out of Charlestown.

I repeat – just because something is theoretically possible, it doesn’t mean it will happen. There is just as much likelihood that all undeveloped land in Charlestown will be developed as there is for the SPA-Gate property to become a two-bedroom house.

Platner then goes on for a couple of paragraphs to praise all the great things the CCA Party has done to prevent Armageddon before setting up the next Straw Man. Here it comes:

Our opposition in this year’s election is claiming that we have too much open space, that we should acquire no more, and that land preservation is competing with development and causing residential growth to be too slow. The data do not support their claims.

I tried to find a source for Ruthie’s extraordinary claim. The closest I came to the inspiration for Platner’s Straw Man claim is an August 20 Westerly Sun letter to the editor by Steven Williams, especially this paragraph:

One time, a senior CCA member told me the town could never buy too much open space. I disagreed then, and I do now, unless my two criteria are met. I believe we have plenty of open space, especially when you add state and federal land into the total. The town’s responsibility is to protect and maintain all our properties. This year, the budget commission had to add additional money to the budget to supplement maintenance of our existing open spaces.

In 2016, Williams was once part of the CCA Party Town Council team until he resigned from the Council in 2018. He is not a 2020 candidate for any town office either for the Charlestown Residents United or any other organization.

He did NOT say Charlestown had “too much” open space – he said we have “plenty” especially when you consider federal and state land. He argued for two sensible criteria for new open space purchases: sensible price and a “reasonable purpose.” Williams' letter is neither anti-open space nor pro-development (read it yourself), just pro-common sense.

A 2016 survey map done by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (below) to support their proposed Great Thicket wildlife refuge shows more than 60% of Charlestown is protected land, not including all the acreage of fresh and saltwater ponds. It is hard evidence that supports Mr. Williams' statement that Charlestown has "plenty" of open space.

It’s not unreasonable to ask when enough is enough. It’s reasonable to call for more strategic acquisitions rather than follow Platner’s policy that “Charlestown could can never buy too much open space.”

Platner wraps up her screed with one more Straw Man:

Development is proceeding at 5 to 10 times the rate of preservation, yet our political opponents see land conservation as a threat to population growth!

The proof, Ruthie, show us the proof. As Carl Sagan said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I’d like to see the numbers Ruthie cites. More importantly, her claim that CCA Party opponents “see land conservation as a threat to population growth” needs to be documented. Who said it and when?

Everything point in this article is documented. Ruthie: it’s your turn.