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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

SPA-Gate scam enters a new phase

Town orders new appraisal of property while cover-up continues

By Will Collette

For those Charlestown taxpayers who have been paying attention, Town Planner Jane Weidman has hired a Newport appraisal company to conduct a new appraisal of the property on Foster Cove being offered for sale by the Sachem Passage Association (SPA).

The SPA is a client group of town masters, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party).

For those who have not been following this issue, here’s a recap.

The Sachem Passage Association (SPA) wants to sell Charlestown a 3.71 acre parcel on Foster Cove that is under-used by the SPA members.

SPA has been joined at the hip with the CCA Party since 2013 when Charlestown blocked a proposed commercial wind turbine project by buying the land under it for $2.1 million.

SPA submitted their offer along with an appraisal based on the false assumption that the lot is buildable, resulting in an appraised value of $426,000. Here's a key extract from that appraisal: 

On June 1, Charlestown Tax Assessor Ken Swain tersely explained why he feels the Town’s current tax assessment of that property is properly pegged at only $61,900. Here's his memo:

Nonetheless, three days after Swain’s memo, Charlestown submitted a grant application for $213,000 (half the price in the bogus appraisal, the maximum amount allowed) to the RI Department of Environmental Management. DEM approved the grant.

Charlestown has blacked-out the contents of all e-mails released to me under the state Access to Public Records Act (APRA) to and from Town Council members related to SPA-Gate. These black-outs (redactions) deny us any insight into the interplay, including deal-making, among key elected town players.

The town has released 94 SPA-Gate documents to me so far but 78 of them have been mostly blacked-out.

NO e-mails by Planning Commissar Platner have been released, redacted or otherwise. I have asked for an explanation of how this is possible, given Platner’s central role in any and all Charlestown land deals. The town has not answered my question.

There have been a couple of e-mails TO Platner from Town Planner Weidman. Here’s the most recent one:

None of the documents released explain what went on between June 2 when Ken Swain laid out why the land was only worth $61,900 and June 4 when Jane Weidman submitted a DEM grant application based on the fictional appraisal of $426,000.

My sources tell me the CCA Party and its SPA chums are waiting until after the election to move this deal forward.

In the meantime, Town Planner Weidman approved a proposal from the Newport Appraisal Group on September 22 to conduct a new appraisal for a cost of $750 to the town. Here is that proposal:

The proposal sets out a three-week time frame for doing the work. It’s been more than three weeks so that appraisal should already be complete. QUESTION: Where is it?

Neither the proposal nor Weidman’s approval letter sets out any instructions or parameters for that appraisal - no e-mails have been released by the town - other than the word "defensible" in the bid letter above. The town has not disclosed any paper trail that explains how Weidman and the appraiser came up with a definition of "defensible." 

We don’t know whether the Newport Appraisal Group is using the same unrealistic assumptions as the SPA’s appraiser did. Whether the land can in fact be used to build a two-bedroom house makes the difference between Swain's $61,900 assessment and SPA's appraiser's $426,000.

What about access?

We also don’t know about the access road that leads to the site. The actual entry to the access driveway appears to have been omitted in the SPA offer as submitted. If the access road is NOT part of the deal, that diminishes the land’s worth to the town a whole lot more. 

Also, if you scroll up to the passage I inserted from the SPA's appraisal, note that the appraiser calls the 3.71 acres size of the property he appraised a second "extraordinary assumption" when in fact, the entire property, including all of the access road, appears on the Charlestown Tax Assessor's rolls as 4.27 acres

Based on the records, that half an acre difference means the SPA wants to sell us land that no one in Charlestown other than the 100 households in SPA can get to. Each SPA household has a deeded  right of 24/7 access to the land.

I'd sure like to know why the SPA did that. We know it was deliberate because in the April 24 sale inquiry SPA Secretary (and CCA Candidate for Town Moderator) Ron Areglado gave 3.71 acres as the acreage being offered.

Here's the map SPA submitted:

SPA-Gate is a bad deal for Charlestown.

We don’t need this property at any price. It is unbuildable (and sea level rise will probably submerge it within a few years). We do not have to worry the land will be developed. The town owns two adjacent pieces of undeveloped land and there’s the neighboring Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge.

If we had the land, what would we do with it without public access?

Besides being a bad deal, there’s also the problem of subterfuge by the CCA Party in directing town officials to subvert YOUR right to know what your elected officials are up to.

It will be interesting to see if the CCA Party allows the new appraisal to surface before Election Day. SPA-Gate has been a poster child for the shady deals and deliberate lack of transparency that are central issues in the November 3rd election.