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Friday, March 5, 2021

Charlestown’s next big scam

 CCA poised to pull another one

By Will Collette 

It seems that Charlestown is the land of “extraordinary assumptions.” That phrase is a recurring theme in appraisals for properties on Planning Commissar Ruth Platner’s open space shopping list. 

When an appraiser describes factors as “extraordinary assumptions,” that means they were told to include imaginary conditions often aimed at jacking up the price. Because appraisers don't not want to lose their license (or go to jail), they use this and sometimes "hypothetical conditions" as a CYA disclaimer. 

In the recently ended SPA-Gate caper, the appraisal with the “extraordinary assumptions” came from CCA-ally Sachem Passage Association whose 4-acre Oyster Drive lot on Foster Pond was appraised at $426,000 based on the false assumption the lot is buildable when it is not. When the town appraisal without that assumption came in at $75,000, the deal fell through. 

Meanwhile, Platner has been working another shady deal for the town to buy the Tucker Estates land off Route 91 based on the seller's offer of $900,000, almost three times its current tax assessment. 

Tucker Estates 

The property is currently assessed at $333,600. The land itself has lots of wetlands and slopes. Its virtues as land that should not be developed are described in detail by Ruth Platner HERE. 

Despite the tax assessment of $333,600, Platner and her plucky Planning Commission minions have been pushing a deal to buy the property for the Town working on the “extraordinary assumption” that the land is worth a whole lot more because a 22-unit housing subdivision might be built there. 

PROBLEM: Yes, once upon a time there was a proposal for a 22-unit subdivision, but Platner and associates killed that project in 2006. Under current rules and conditions, it is unlikely that, after 15 years, this dead project will come back from the grave and somehow slip through Ruthie’s Iron Curtain of passive resistance. 

That 15 years dead, 22-unit project is the “extraordinary assumption” that has driven up the price in a series of appraisals both by the town and by the landowner. 

While I enjoy reading fiction, I do not want my tax dollars spent on land that is priced based on fiction. 

The first town appraisal, done by our usual vendor the Newport Appraisal Group, was handed in on April 7, 2020. It appraised the land – based on the fictional 22-unit housing development – at $660,000. 

There is a link to the appraisal in the IQM2 report for the Council’s August 11, 2020 meeting. There is also a link to the full DEM grant application. 

Apparently, the $660,000 valuation was not acceptable to the landowner so the town had Newport Appraisal Group do it over, using different, higher-priced “comps” (comparable properties) that lifted the value to $725,000. 

Further, this appraisal not only accepts the imaginary condition that the land could be used for 22 house lots but takes that as the basis for calculating the land value as you can see below. Average value of house lot of $33,000 multiplied by 22 equals $726,000 (rounded down to $725,000).

From the second "revised" appraisal done for the Town

That appraisal is dated one week after the first appraisal – April 15, 2020. This appraisal is linked to the Council’s February 8, 2021 meeting. 

And now there is a December 2020 appraisal, this time from owner Brian Lind's Tucker Estates LLC. This new appraisal puts the value of the land at $915,000. Like all the other appraisals, it uses the assumption that the 15 years dead project for 22 units of housing might somehow be built and also uses the hypothetical value of 22 individual house lots as the basis for setting the price. 

From the Tucker Estates LLC appraisal

In a display of magnanimity, however, Lind offers the land to Charlestown not for the $915,000 listed in his appraisal but for only $900,000, with a closing date of June 1, 2021. 

Wow! $15,000 off the price for a property that is assessed by the town at $333,600! Whotta deal!

Here's the actual town tax assessment:

The appraisers who wrote the three appraisals all covered their butts by labelling the possibility of the 22-unit housing development as an “extraordinary assumption” or a "hypothetical condition." In other words, bullshit. 

Compounding the Town's potential legal exposure, Charlestown applied for and received a grant from DEM for $800,000 based on fictional land value. 

In my final article on SPA-Gate, I noted the section of the Rhode Island General Laws could lead to serious trouble for the Town for slinging bogus appraisals around:

§ 11-18-1 Giving false document to agent, employee, or public official. – (a) No person shall knowingly give to any agent, employee, servant in public or private employ, or public official any receipt, account, or other document in respect of which the principal, master, or employer, or state, city, or town of which he or she is an official is interested, which contains any statement which is false or erroneous, or defective in any important particular, and which, to his or her knowledge, is intended to mislead the principal, master, employer, or state, city, or town of which he or she is an official.

(b) Any person who violates any of the provisions of this section shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, upon conviction, shall be imprisoned, with or without hard labor, for a term not exceeding one year or be fined not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000).

All of the appraisals in play on the Tucker Estates land use the assumption that 22 units of housing can and will be built on this land. As Ruth Platner already demonstrated, this is simply not going to happen. 

It is not the friggin' job of our town officials – Town Planner Jane Weidman, Planning Commissar Ruth Platner or Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz – to manipulate reality to get the seller a higher price. It is at least dishonest, if not outright illegal. 

So, to recap, there is a town tax assessment of $333,600 valuing the land for what it is. Then there are three appraisals, all based on fiction, for $660,000, $725,000 and $915,000. Then there is the draft purchase-and-sales agreement from the buyer asking for $900,000. 

One of these days, some CCA-sponsored shady land deal will end up in front of a Grand Jury, especially when we are using bogus appraisals to get more state funds than the true value of the land warrants. 

I like open space, but I believe that before we spend a lot of taxpayer money, we should be sure we’re not getting ripped off. 

Town open space buys should be strategic. Just filling in the map is not strategic no matter how many oddly colored maps Ruth Platner puts out. 

Is the land in danger? Looking at the history of this project, I just don’t see it. Ruthie killed the hypothetical 22-unit development 15 years ago. Seriously, why do the Town of Charlestown and the state of Rhode Island need to buy this property when any development is highly unlikely? 

This issue is on the agenda for the Town Council’s March 8 meeting.