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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Town Council follow-up: What’s next for Y-Gate?

Now that the $475,000 for the Y campground is out of the budget, is this out of our hair?
By Will Collette

Charlestown taxpayers narrowly averted having their pockets picked to the tune of $475,000 last Monday night. The Town Council bowed to public opposition and took out the controversial $475,000 expenditure from the town surplus which was to buy a worthless conservation easement from the Charlestown Land Trust who would then buy an over-priced abandoned campground from the Westerly YMCA, primarily for the benefit of a neighboring cluster of vacation homes.

Y-Gate’s prime-mover, Councilor Gregg Avedisian, asked for the funds to be pulled since town lawyers say it would have to go to the voters as a separate ballot item, where it would surely be defeated.

So now what? Is Y-Gate over?

Technically, the Town Council could return to the plan they approved last February where they would pay for the easement, and thus finance the Y-Gate transaction, by using the town’s Open Space/Recreation bonds. Under the current Town Charter, when funds are used from a bond fund that has already been approved by the voters, it does not have to go back to the voters for their approval.

That seemed like a good idea to a majority of the Councilors back in February, but angry residents have demanded the right to vote on the issue.

The Town Budget Commission then brought forward a proposal to pay cash for the easement, using excess surplus funds, thus avoiding interest and bond issuance costs. Except, then the Town Charter provisions requiring a separate vote kick in.

So even though, technically, the Council could go back to the original plan to use bond money and avoid a vote, they would face a political firestorm and most likely political suicide.

The $475,000 went back into the budget and last Monday, the Town Council reallocated some of that money for needed town infrastructure and energy efficiency. That’s an excellent use for those funds.

No joy in Sonquipaugia
The Westerly YMCA still has the 27.5 acres it wants to unload. It abandoned the camp over four years ago, so that use is unlikely, especially since they set up another camp nearby.

The Charlestown Land Trust had been hoping to make the biggest land score in its history, using town taxpayer money, but that now seems unlikely.

The Sonquipaug Association, which had torpedoed an earlier proposal by the YMCA and Ted Veazey to build a 10-home conservation development, wanted the Y camp bought by the town for open space so they would have land to supplement their tenth of an acre vacation homes.

Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, the Machiavelli behind this whole scheme, has egg on her face for once again double-dealing and over-reaching. This time, she was caught.

Watchaug Pond is already protected - green is
open space, blue - wetlands, red is SAMP.
Only the white space is buildable.
There is more potential fall-out. The state DEM originally approved a $367,000 state grant, but they now want the Charlestown Land Trust to conduct an honest land appraisal, unlike the one they foisted on the gullible Charlestown Town Council.

One complex scenario is for the Y-Gate players to try to get the Council to rezone the land from Open Space/Recreation to Residential again. This was the proposal the Y and Ted Veazey brought to the Council last year - the deal that was killed by the current Y-Gate players.

But if they go back to the Council with this proposal again - not because they really want to create a conservation development but because they want to legitimize an appraisal as if the land was coming to be used residential - they might succeed in patching together another three member Council majority again.

However, such a scheme would be seen and denounced for its gross dishonesty. Once again, the Y-Gate players and their allies on the Council would face political retribution.

All of the Y-Gate players - the Westerly Y, the Charlestown Land Trust, Sonquiquagia, Planning Commissar Platner, Councilors Avedisian and Frank and Council Boss Tom Gentz - have taken a heavy hit to their credibility.

After witnessing so many sleazy tricks, any new scheme, however innocent sounding, will be subject to microscopic examination and a ton of skepticism. If there is the slightest whiff of deception, expect an uproar from taxpayers.

Councilor Avedisian told the Westerly Sun, “The proposal as it was written — whether it was as it was originally intended, coming out from the [open space] bond money, or out of the surplus — is under challenge [referring to Donaghue v. Charlestown].“Essentially, it’s dead.”

Maybe and I hope so. Charlestown voters have almost always supported sensible expansion of the town’s open space, although now that around 50% of the town is open-space or otherwise tax-exempt, that could change. Y-Gate did not help the cause of open space, either. One unintended consequence is that Y-Gate will make Charlestown voters more skeptical about future open space deals. 

Strategic open space acquisition is always worth considering. For example, I have publicly supported efforts to negotiate a fair price with developer Larry LeBlanc to acquire the 81 acres he owns along Route 1. This land has been the proposed site for one unpopular land use after another. In addition to being strategically located, and genuine open space, if the town bought that land, it would end almost 20 years worth of headaches and hassles.
Potential open space?

The Westerly YMCA’s camp, on the other hand, is not strategic, though the Y-Gate deal is certainly opportunistic. Most of Watchaug Pond is already protected, surrounded by state, federal, non-profit or town land, open space, wetlands or is part of the CRMC’s critical area (SAMP).

The Y Camp is also not really open space, as the Charlestown Conservation Commission has been saying all along. It has the potential to become open space, but you can say the same about almost any where. My home town of Central Falls has the potential to become open space. Olneyville could become open space. Midtown Manhattan could become open space.

Chernobyl has become “open space.” Fukashima is probably destined to be open space, too. Hey, we have people in Charlestown who think the old United Nuclear site is wonderful open space because they saw a grasshopper sparrow on it (never mind that it had six wings and three beaks).

Any space could become open space
I think it would be great if the Charlestown Land Trust would follow the example of their sister organization, the Westerly Land Trust, and raise more private money to buy the property. Or the Sonquipaug vacation homeowners could pool their money and buy it. The land is zoned “open space/recreational” so let it be that. This is a private deal with three interested parties: the Westerly YMCA, the Charlestown Land Trust and the Sonquipaug Association. If they want to work something out among them - without taxpayer money - then that's just fine. 

Councilor Avedisian also told the Westerly Sun that the Westerly YMCA is impatient to complete this transaction. I wonder why. They didn’t pay a nickel for the land. They pay no taxes on it. They abandoned it with its derelict buildings and old septics four years ago.

If the Y is, as Councilor Avedisian also says, possibly looking for another buyer why haven't they re-listed the property on the open market? Could the parties be up to  some type of back-room deal? If they have another buyer prepared to take the land with its open space/recreation zoning and clean it up, that would be great. But let's make sure any such "new" buyer isn't just a proxy for the Y-Gate players to work another angle to grab Charlestown taxpayer money..

All “open space” is not created equal. “Open space” is not the sole measure of environmental quality or ecological values. Let’s just deal with the truth: Y-Gate is a bad deal on many different levels and Charlestown taxpayers should not have to pay one nickel, never mind $475,000 either in cash or on credit.

If Councilor Avedisian is correct in pronouncing it “dead,” then let’s make sure it's really most sincerely dead, and then move on.