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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Charlestown Comp Plan passage was fast and dubious

Too fast

The problem is this Plan is not Comprehensive, though it is long, and the
Public hearing wasn't really a public hearing. That's for starters: read the rest.
This article originally appeared as a Letter to the Editor of the Westerly Sun. Reprinted with the author’s permission

 At a special Town Council meeting on May 4, Charlestown was again treated to the spectacle of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance-dominated Planning Commission and Town Council pushing through an almost 400-page Comprehensive Plan over numerous and serious objections. The obvious question is what is in the plan that the CCA does not want citizens to review?

The last Comp Plan expired about eight years ago. Despite CCA control of both the Planning Commission and the Town Council, a revised plan was not developed. When the council sought to slip through an unneeded senior center that would have expended the town’s surplus and significantly reduce the possibility of events in Ninigret Park, Charlestown citizens wisely voted that down. The town then commissioned a survey to clarify what the citizens of Charlestown wanted to see done in the town. This should be available in several months.

What also resulted was that CCA developed a Comp Plan for the town. They presented the plan to the town with extraordinary pressure to pass it immediately; pressure that did result in a lopsided CCA approval of the plan Tuesday.

This approval was voted despite:

1. The National Park Service, with whom we share management for the park, pointing out errors and asking for a two-week delay to review the plan they had just received;

2. Numerous errors being pointed out at the meeting;

3. Inputs from affected organizations, like the Economic Improvement Commission, being basically ignored;

4. The imminent availability of the survey that should define the wants and needs of the town residents upon which such a document should be based; and

5. Comments from citizens that there was not adequate time for review of this long and very important document.

At the council meeting, CCA members and supporters contended that the town is in imminent danger from outside nefarious forces that want to impose unwanted changes on our town. Recent examples, like the Dollar General issue and the Amtrak expansion, were handled by the town without this proposed plan as might well occur in the future.

CCA members say the plan can always be amended. It has taken eight years to generate this plan. Does anyone believe that a CCA dominated town governance will move within a reasonable time frame to modify the plan? Why not do it right the first time?

So why the rush? Even a brief look at the plan demonstrates CCA’s efforts to mold Charlestown into their image without citizen input. The plan emphasizes what is called “dark and quiet” development, which will stall many uses for Ninigret Park.

It strongly emphasizes acquiring open space and conservation land, regardless of the cost to the town or the effect on the economic welfare of Charlestown from the removal of land from the town tax rolls.

Unfortunately, Charlestown is saddled with CCA dominance until the next townwide election. It is hoped that CCA’s heavy-handed approach to governing will be recognized and repudiated at that time so that the needs and desires of all of Charlestown’s citizens will once again be considered. 

EDITOR’S NOTES by Will Collette

I agree with all of Mr. Robbins’ points and made a few more of my own in the comments I submitted on the town’s Comprehensive Plan.

I included my article critique published on April 17, 2021 in Progressive Charlestown.

In that critique, I flagged these issues:

“Rural character” is the most important factor in making land use decisions yet the Plan fails to define what that means. At best, this makes “rural character-based” decisions arbitrary and, at worst, could be interpreted as violating federal and Rhode Island civil rights laws, especially when it comes to fair housing. Either way, it’s ripe for litigation.

Bikes ├╝ber alles seems to be the main way the Plan envisions Charlestown residents will get around in the future. Yet the Plan also acknowledges Charlestown's rapidly aging population. Aside from continued use of cars and increased use of bikes, the Plan has no provision for those who are too old to drive or unfit to ride a bike except to call Uber! Yes, ride-share services are the Plan's provision for the transportation needs of the growing senior population.

Jobs and the economy get short shrift in the Plan which seems to only see growth in the tourism and recreation industries where jobs are traditionally low-wage, no benefit jobs. Indeed, the Plan forecasts no efforts by the Town to encourage any job creation outside of tourism and recreation.

Energy is another vital topic that doesn’t seem to interest the authors’ of the Plan. There are some exaggerated and false claims about past green energy endeavors, but really nothing substantive looking forward. Except maybe Charlestown residents should burn more wood. Yes, it says that.

There’s no discussion of reviving the “Solarize Charlestown” program,  repealing Charlestown’s ordinance that virtually outlaws residential wind energy or property tax credits for green energy investment. Charlestown's current, anti-residential wind ordinance was adopted on March 14, 2011. In the past ten years, ZERO permits have been issued for installing a small residential wind generator .

The Narragansett Indian Tribe is included in the plan mainly as an inaccurately depicted historical footnote. But interestingly, the Plan refers to a possible deal between the town and the Tribe to build affordable housing for tribal members. I doubt this will actually happen, given past history and the Town’s immovable demand that any land use by the Tribe must be approved in advance by the town.

More and more open space is the Town’s top priority, according to the Plan as written. The Plan includes lots of data that interested me. For example, Charlestown covers a total of 59.3 square miles. Almost 40% of that is water (22.5 square miles).

Of the 36.8 square miles of dry land, our Tax Assessor says that 59.7% (22 square miles) are either tax-exempt or undeveloped, leaving 14.8 square miles to provide Charlestown with its tax base.

But, according to the Plan authors, we must have MORE open space because “rural character.” Look at how much we have already:

Given that much of Charlestown’s coastal property (and tax base) will inundated by sea-level rise or destroyed by a long-overdue major storm, who knows where the Town will find the money to pay off all those bonds we issued to pay for Ruth Platner’s shopping spree.

And there’s more important issues missing in the Plan as written. I included the following added points when I submitted my article for the record. I left them out of my article due to space limitations.

School enrollment and aging population. While the draft does reflect the Planning Commission chair’s bias against population growth, I would have expected Ms. Platner to crow about her success in keeping out or driving out more families with school-age children, as reflected in the steadily dropping Charlestown enrollment in Chariho schools. The draft lacks discussion of the implications of losing families while residents continue to grow old and die. 

One result we are already seeing is the inability of our volunteer fire companies to recruit enough personnel. Octogenarian Wall Street retirees from Connecticut are not good candidates for fire-fighting duty. 

Based on current projections, it appears to me that Charlestown’s future is that of one great big assisted living facility except we won’t have a labor force to provide care. Those workers will have to come from outside since the Plan has no provision for ways to house them.

Tax policy. Though there were glancing references to the use of tax policy to promote or discourage certain policies, a lot more attention should have been given to the creative use of tax incentives. For example, in the example above about the difficulty of recruiting volunteer firefighters, why not offer a tax credit to those who serve? 

Tax policy, continued. No mention is made of two major drains on Charlestown tax revenues caused by the two fake fire districts in Charlestown: Shady Harbor and Central Quonnie. Neither fights fires but do provide an array of services (trash pickup, recreation including private tennis courts and beaches, snow plowing, private water) that the rest of us must pay for. Both serve the function of providing services and management of properties solely for the use of these two quasi-gated communities. 

But instead of paying membership dues and management fees, resident “members” of these two fire districts pay “property tax” that is deductible from state and federal income tax. Plus, Charlestown grants extraordinary discounts on the assessments of some of the valuable property in Charlestown, none of which is related to fighting fires. 

This plan should have included what Charlestown intends to do about this serious equity problem and revenue drain. The Plan ignores the role of fake fire districts in impeding stated goals for public beach access even though they were featured in a recent Rhode Island public radio expose HERE. 

Land use and quarries. While the Plan briefly mentions that new extractive industries are prohibited, it omits mention of the numerous abandoned and operating facilities.  Currently, there is no federal state or town law that provides for clean-up, restoration or even minimal hazard reduction, such as leveling high walls and draining pools.

What will happen at South County Sand and Gravel when it eventually closes? Personally, I believe these sites should be considered for utility-sized solar panel farms, unless someone has a better idea. But this is a problem that is serious and cannot be ignored. The Plan is sorely deficient for failure to include a remedy for these much-abused lands 

Housing and Building permits. I noticed the graph in Chapter 11 on building permits issued ends at 2018. I am curious about the choice of that as a cut-off date. Zoning officer Joe Warner has up-to-the-minute records on such permits so I am curious why the Plan authors left out the data for 2019 and 2020. The Plan is virtually silent on the biggest housing issue in Charlestown: the lack of affordable housing as this chart from HousingWorksRI shows:

Miszoning. I noticed a brief reference to properties that are not properly zoned, but wish to point out that this problem is widespread and long-standing. Former town Planner Ashley Hahn revealed this problem in 2012 in detail in her report to the Town Council. In 2016, I presented updated information on the problem HERE. Ruth Platner promised she would deal with the problem, but nearly a decade later, it’s still here and is, in my opinion, inadequately addressed in the Comprehensive Plan.

The Charlestown Comprehensive Plan does not become final until it is approved by the RI Division of Statewide Planning. If the CCA majority and Planning Commission will not address the mistakes, flaws and omissions in the Plan, the next step would be to Charlestown residents to file grievances with Statewide Planning. 

Kevin Nelson is the Supervising Planner at (401) 222-2093, or write to the Division of Statewide Planning, 235 Promenade Street, Suite #230, Providence, RI 02908.