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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Slyke of Hand, Part 2: Spit in my face and call it rain

Van Slyke touts land scam as grand achievement

By Will Collette

Read Part 1 HERE.

This is the second part of a series of articles debunking an 8-point manifesto published by CCA senior Town Council member Bonnie Van Slyke. Van Slyke, at least for now, lives in Arnolda. Van Slyke’s article is entitled “Ignore deception and focus on accomplishments.”

In this “Slyke of Hand” series, I intend to take Van Slyke at her word, looking at the truth behind the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) deceptions about its so-called “achievements.”

Here’s one of Van Slyke’s eight bullet points:

·         Preservation of Critical Natural Resources—The Council voted to acquire, with the help of a $400,000 Natural Heritage grant, over 66 acres of forested open space along Alton Carolina Road (Rt. 91) that will protect important natural, scenic, ecological and agricultural resources.

This statement refers to an effort led by Van Slyke and CCA co-founder and Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, to spend town and state funds to buy Tucker Estates. Using the CCA's majority grip on the Town Council, Platner got her wish when the Council voted to buy the land for $900,000.

Ruth Platner announced the completion of the deal like this:

The Charlestown Town Council voted to acquire this property as protected public open space at the April 12, 2021 Town Council meeting. The real estate closing to purchase the property took place on September 30th. The land was acquired with funding from a $400,000.00 Natural Heritage grant from the state and the remainder in town open space funds approved by voters in a 2015 referendum.

I couldn’t help but notice the constant reference to the $400,000 in state money - which incidentally is our money, too – and no specific mention of the $500,000 of Charlestown taxpayer money.

Platner's and Van Slyke's boasts omit the total cost of $900,000 to buy land our Tax Assessor Ken Swain assessed at only $333,600 as you can see below.

Paying almost three times how much the land is worth is NOT a deal worth bragging about!

How the deal worked

Platner and Van Slyke argued for this deal to protect Tucker Estates from being developed. In fact, the land owner, Wakefield developer Brian Lind, did try to get town approval to build 22 housing units on that property in 2005, 15 years ago. But Platner and her plucky Planning Commission killed that project and kept it dead for these 15 years.

Platner decided to take this 15 year-old dead project to get a grant from DEM. One problem to overcome was the difficulty in coming up with an appraisal that met Lind’s bottom line price.

Swain had already caused a problem by assessing the land at only $333,600. Now Platner and Van Slyke needed an appraisal that was higher – much higher.

Using the false assumption that 22 units of housing could be built on the site, the town had two appraisals done. The first appraisal came in at $660,000 and the second at $725,000 after they tweaked some of the assumptions to get the price up.

Unanswered question: Since when is it the town's job to manipulate appraisals to increase the amount of money taxpayers will pay for a property?

These two town appraisals – based on the false assumption that 22 units can be built there – weren’t good enough for Brian Lind so he commissioned his own appraisal. To my shock and amazement, his appraisal, also using the 22 units of housing assumption, came in at $915,000.

Out of the kindness of his heart, Lind offered Charlestown (meaning the CCA, Platner and Van Slyke) a discount of $15,000 so we could buy his property for “only” $900,000.

And, oh my God, we accepted it. More details of that dirty deal are HERE.

And, oh my God, Platner and Van Slyke are actually bragging about paying more than double the assessed value and more than the town’s own appraisals for reasons that perhaps only a Grand Jury can uncover.

And Charlestown taxpayers must endure this – as an old Russian proverb put it “you piss on my face and call it rain.”

Another dirty deal

Let me remind you that this Tucker Estate rip-off overlapped with another attempted rip-off – SPA-Gate or as some call it “Oyster-gate,” a proposed land deal similar to Tucker Estates where the town was going to buy a parcel on Oyster Road at Foster Cove for many times the assessed value.

Again, DEM funds were involved. So were low tax assessments and artificially high appraisals. Like Tucker Estates, the owner’s appraisal used the assumption that the land was buildable – which it is not.

Ron Areglado, currently president of the Sachem Passage Association (SPA), presented SPA’s appraisal of $426,000 in the sales pitch to the town. By contrast, Tax Assessor Ken Swain told town Planner Jane Weidman the land was only worth $61,800 and spelled out all the reasons why the lot was unbuildable in a memo you can read below:

But even though Weidman had ASKED Swain to explain the low appraisal, only days later, she ignored them and submitted Areglado's $426,000 appraisal with the grant application to DEM.

DEM approved the application for $213,000, half of the land’s SPA appraisal value. DEM also wanted an independent appraisal, one without the fake claim that the land was buildable. That independent appraisal came back with a figure of $75,000, a figure SPA rejected, effectively ending Oyster-gate.

And another deal in the making

That brings me to the town’s latest plan for land acquisition.

On October 12. at the last Council meeting, Van Slyke got the Council to approve, on a 3-2 party line vote, another DEM grant application. Except this time, she said she would not disclose the land in question because the seller wants confidentiality. The Council members were given the identity of the seller AFTER the agenda for the meeting was set. 

Peter looks for, but can't find the answer (photo by Will Collette)
Town Lawyer Peter Ruggerio was asked his opinion whether it was legal to vote under these weird conditions. As he usually does, Peter said he didn’t know but that it was probably up to the Council. 

I don’t recall ever seeing the Council approve moving a deal forward without even saying what the property is or the amount of money involved. 

If there is a precedent for this, please let me know. And, lawyers, I’d like your opinion on whether this is legal. Write me HERE. 

So the three CCA council members voted to approve a grant application from Charlestown to DEM without knowing how much the application will be because they don’t have an appraisal nor do they know what the seller wants. 

If we knew the name of the seller, we could at least check the town’s tax assessment, but because of the secrecy, we can’t do that either. 

The 3-2 vote broke down like this: Council President Deb Carney and Councilor Grace Klinger voted NO. CCA Councilors Van Slyke, Cody Clarkin and Susan Anderson (CORRECTION: That's Susan COOPER. Sorry - WC) voted YES to a blatant violation of any reasonable sense of open government, if not in itself a crime.

Bye-bye, Bonnie

Coincidentally, CCA senior Town Councilor (and main proponent for this secret land deal) Bonnie Van Slyke just listed her Arnolda property with Lila Delman for $2,995,000. It consists of three parcels. One is 10.58 acres of vacant land described as “buildable” and zoned R3A. The smallest of the three parcels is zoned as “R2A Open Space 30%.” The combined assessment is $1,133,400, a little more than one-third of the asking price. 

Her own house is being sold “as is.” Further, the description notes, This is an unsurpassed opportunity to renovate or build your own palatial coastal retreat.”  

Based on the language of the sales pitch, Van Slyke’s current house is treated as a tear-down and the buyer is advised to either build a new McMansion or sub-divide the property. 

Could Van Slyke be teeing up to pitch her own home as the next big CCA land deal?  Probably not because that would be an ethical step too far. But we can’t know that for sure because the CCA Councilors approved Van Slyke’s secrecy motion on a party line vote. 

All we know for sure are the incredible lengths the Charlestown Citizens Alliance will go to run Charlestown and do their dirty deals in secret. If I had a crystal ball, I can see a grand jury in the CCA’s future.

FOLLOW-UP: Rail Roar

In Part I of Slyke of Hand, I wrote about the uproar sparked by the CCA over what they claim is a reincarnation of AMTRAK’s Old Saybrook-Kenyon bypass, a thoroughly unpopular plan that was thoroughly defeated in 2017. But Ruth Platner says – without evidence – that “They’re Back.

Here's a photo from that ground-breaking, put out by the Providence p.r. firm
New Harbor Group, the consultants hired by Charlestown Town Administrator
Mark Stankiewicz to fight to invisible terror of a new AMTRAK line through
Charlestown. Does Ruth Platner know Stankiewicz just hired
people who are working for the CCA's enemy?
I’m surprised she didn’t go nuts when the Independent ran an October 14 article entitled Groundbreaking hints at future of rail in South County.”

The article described the ground-breaking for a new Mill Creek Rail Yard at Quonset Point. That will allow up to 58 more rail cars to bring cargo to businesses located there.

As you might expect, there was talk about more jobs and tax revenue for the town and business activity for the state. The 200 businesses at Quonset already employ more than 12,000 at a payroll of $1.3 billion. That’s 1 of every 6 manufacturing workers in the state. Quonset also generates $136 million in state and local tax revenue.

Funding for improved rail includes a $3 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, supplemented by a $1 million match from the QDC.

The report also notes that RI’s members of Congress have also secured $160 million in federal grants to improve freight rail in the state and the state has invested another $75 million over the past decade.

Since the CCA and Platner have seized upon any efforts to improve rail transport within a 200 mile radius as “proof” that the AMTRAK boogeyman wants to destroy Charlestown, her silence on this is surprising – maybe it means she doesn’t follow the Independent.