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Thursday, April 8, 2021

$900,000 for Tucker Estates: who’s idea was it?

On Monday, Town Council will decide whether to give away $500,000 in town money to Wakefield developer

By Will Collette

At the Monday, April 12 Council meeting, there will be a “public” hearing perhaps followed by a decision to spend $500,000 in town money and $400,000 in state funds for Tucker Estates, an over-valued piece of property owned by Brian Lind, a Wakefield developer.

Going back over Town Council meeting videos, this project was sketchy from the start. First, the town violated its own procedures for open space acquisition by actively soliciting the owner, rather than have the owner file the “Open Space Declaration of Interest.”

According to testimony by Town Planner Jane Weidman (Town Council meeting, August 11, 2020, starting at 1:23 on the video), the idea to buy the property came from Planning Commissar Ruth Platner and Arnolda’s Town Councilor Bonnie Van Slyke.

Screenshot from Town Planner Jane Weidman's unusual
August 11, 2020 testimony about how the Tucker Estate
deal started
They had their eye on a new cycle of DEM open space grants and decided this property would be a nice addition to Ruth’s open space shopping basket.

 Ruth knew about Tucker Estates because – FIFTEEN YEARS AGO - she had killed a proposal from Lind to build a 22 unit housing development.

The town commissioned an appraisal to be done on the property. For some unexplained reason, they decided to have the appraisal done based on the “extraordinary assumption” that the 22-unit housing development Platner had killed 15 years ago was somehow going to be built in the near future.

The first appraisal came in at $660,000 based on that false assumption was too low for Lind, according to Planner Weidman so she had the appraisal re-done using different comparable properties and got a second appraisal at $725,000.

That was still too low for Lind so he got his own appraisal done. That came in at $915,000 but having a generous heart, Lind has offered the town a purchase-and-sale agreement at $900,000.

Now, if you want a more realistic dollar figure for the land’s worth, minus the imaginary 22-unit housing development, look at Charlestown’s Tax Assessment for the property, which pegs its value at $333,600.

DEM awarded Charlestown a $400,000 grant, the maximum allowed, based on the town’s “extraordinary assumption” appraisals. In case you need reminding, this $400,000 in possible state DEM funding is ALSO our money.

Weidman told the Town Council that DEM has given her verbal approval for either the town’s or the owner’s appraisals, except that’s not what DEM told me.

Charlestown cannot assume DEM will go along with valuing the property based on the imaginary 22-unit subdivision. DEM will subject the property and its value to their own analysis. There is at least one Charlestown precedent where DEM rejected the town’s appraisal (see below) on one of Ruth Platner’s sketchy land deals.

Charlestown is counting on that $400,000 from DEM to cut the direct cost to the town to half a million dollars. Remember, the town has assessed Tucker Estates as worth $333,600 and here is that document: 

Who ya gonna believe? Our tax assessor or appraisals based on fairy tale assumptions?

What makes this deal smell even more is that we simply don't need to buy the land to keep it from being developed. Platner and her crusty commissioners have killed development on the land in the past and would kill it in the future. So why buy it?

That’s what will be discussed at the April 12 Town Council meeting. 

If you wish to “attend” virtually it’s relatively easy – you can click on “Virtual meetings” on Charlestown’s home page to get access to coverage via Cisco WebEx, an app you need to download. There are some instructions in the left-hand column. You can also e-mail comments to Councilors – find their e-mail addresses HERE. I’m still waiting for a response from Cody Clarkin to my March e-mail about Tucker Estates. Scout’s honor!

Also, much to my surprise, town government took my criticisms of the way access to past meetings and documents were hidden. The IQM2 program – distinctly different than Cisco WebEx – that you have to use to access past meetings was so hidden that you needed a compass and bag of breadcrumbs to find it.

That has changed. Now on the Charlestown’s home page, there’s a small print link to the IQM2 web portal right under the link to “Agendas and Minutes.” You can use this to look for yourself at the earlier Council discussions about Tucker Estates.

Most recently, the Town (actually the CCA’s) plan to buy a 4 acre property on Oyster Drive from its political allies fell through over widely different appraisals. The seller submitted a $426,000 appraisal based on the “extraordinary assumption” the land was buildable, versus a $75,000 town appraisal based on the fact the land was NOT buildable. The deal fell through.

But to me, this new Tucker Estates scam more closely resembles the Y-Gate scam in 2011-12.

The Gist: The Westerly YMCA owned an abandoned summer camp on Watchaug Pond that they wanted to dump. After the town rejected an eco-friendly 10-unit development proposal supported by the Y, the Y worked through its benefactors (who also had close CCA ties) to finagle a town purchase of the property.

The YMCA gave the town an appraisal for $735,000 that used the “extraordinary assumption” that a zoning change and development plan the town had just rejected might actually happen, along with a variety of other convenient omissions that I analyzed in THIS ARTICLE.

DEM had initially awarded Charlestown a grant for this deal, as they have for Tucker Estates. But they also saw the flaws in the appraisal and cut the award from $367,000 to $206,000. The Y-Gate deal dragged on for months as then Council President, CCA leader Tom Gentz, tried one bizarre tactic after another to get around rising public dissent.

Ultimately, public opposition was too much, even for the CCA, and the deal fizzled out. The YMCA found another buyer and that property hasn’t made the news in years.

It seems like every two or three years, Ruth Platner, the common denominator in all these shady deals, comes up with a property she just has to have, no matter how much it costs the rest of us. 

According to the new draft Comprehensive Plan, about half the town’s land area is officially open space, but Ruth seems to want to grab it all, except maybe for the seaside properties where the CCA’s base owns houses.

Ruth does her best to stay under the radar, letting others, like Planner Jane Weidman, do her dirty work. Platner doesn’t use the town’s e-mail system to avoid any disclosure of her wheeling and dealing under the state open records law.

As long as Ruth continues to exercise de facto control over town government, this will be a chronic problem that I plan to do my best to expose.