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Saturday, October 13, 2012

CORRECTED: The YMCA camp deal: Ripoff, foregone conclusion, or both?

Open space for sale. Price: $475,000.

Ruth Platner outnitpicks a nitpicker

Mea culpa. Ruth Platner has called us Progressive Charlestown editors liars in the Westerly Sun because we've said she and her husband Cliff Vanover enrolled in the Farm, Forest, and Open Space program to get their hefty tax break on their 13.5-acre property when in fact the tax break is due to a deed covenant restricting them to using the land for farming. I myself am a notorious nitpicker and am stunned that I did not split that hair that finely and neglected to make that distinction, so I am correcting my story from last year forthwith. Deleted text in the original is shown below in strikethrough; added clarifying text is highlighted and boldfaced. We regret the error. 

Oh, and for the record, although this story and the "Pants on Fire" story Will recently corrected were not 100% correct when originally published, we’ve also published two other stories where we correctly described the Platner-Vanover tax break (here and here), so for those who are keeping score, we're 2 for 2 on this one.

I'll also take the opportunity to update the story, which originally ran on December 30, 2011: Despite Ruth Platner’s best efforts, the Y camp ripoff was thwarted and the taxpayers were saved from the fiscal irresponsibility of Platner and CCA Town Council President Tom Gentz. The ripoff—which seemed like a foregone conclusion when this story was writtenwas blocked by community resistance, a resistance that was fueled by PC’s steadfast and dead-on accurate investigative reporting.
Which makes me wonder if perhaps Platner is really pissed off at Progressive Charlestown because we've put an unaccustomed spotlight on her actions against the interests of the majority of the citizens of Charlestown. Click through to read the corrected original story.

By Linda Felaco

The  only real news to come out of the Planning Commission’s discussion last night of its advisory to the Town Council on the proposed purchase of the YMCA camp was that Commissar Ruth Platner and Commissioner George Tremblay read Progressive Charlestown.

The Planning Commission devoted nearly an hour of their December 28 2011 meeting to a discussion their leader, Ruth Platner, said was pointless. They didn’t need to write an advisory opinion, not yet for sure, and maybe not ever, seeing as how the town wasn’t actually buying the land and under the charter, the Planning Commission only has to give an advisory when the town is buying land. Besides, they’d already blown all their time beating up the Botkas and kvetching about Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero and Building Official Joe Warner’s objections to the dark sky ordinance. And they were clearly overtired. Yet on and on they went.

At several points in the discussion of the advisory (spoiler alert: The Planning Commission is all for having us taxpayers fork over nearly half a million dollars for a property we won’t even own), Platner rattled off talking points that she felt the need to rebut.

First, she was at pains to point out that she had nothing to do with the filing of the grant proposal to the DEM to buy the land. She’d started writing it based on what she’d already written to acquire the LeBlanc property, but once the Charlestown Land Trust came on board, she says she handed off her work to them to finish—and they may have even made changes to it for all she knew. Distinction without a difference, in my book, but she clearly wanted this on the record for some reason.

Next, the commissioners launched into a discussion of the difference between active and passive recreation and what types of activities would be permitted under the DEM grant. Gordon Foer repeatedly put in a plea for a playground. He doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo from Ruth that we’re phasing out children in Charlestown. He feels that the little tykes are sorely deprived in the playground department. Which is probably true. The only playground in town that I know of is at the elementary school. But then again, given all our vast tracts of open space, much of the town is a de facto recreation area already. 

And concerns were raised about liability and the potential need for a playground monitor. Apparently, my old neighborhood in Maryland was extremely reckless in providing numerous unmonitored playgrounds where children played at their own risk. I’ll sleep better at night knowing my neighbor’s kids aren’t in any danger from playgrounds.

The subject of Larry LeBlanc’s 81 acres also came up; specifically, George Tremblay asked how purchasing the YMCA camp would affect our ability to buy LeBlanc land. Well let’s see. We have a $2 million open space recreation bond, and if we spend ~$500,000, we’ll only have at most $1.5 million left, minus whatever else has already been spent. Tremblay then asked which of the two properties would be preferred. Alas, this question went unanswered when Town Planner Ashley Hahn Morris reminded the commissioners that LeBlanc land was not the subject of the meeting, only the YMCA camp.
The road not traveled: Ted Veazey's proposed conservation
development for the YMCA camp land.

Platner also wanted to make sure everyone was aware that the rejected conservation development proposed by Ted Veazey would not have offered any public access to Watchaug Pond. Well, why should it have. There’s no public access to the pond through the Sonquipaug neighborhood either. But access to Watchaug Pond is hardly restricted given that there are two state campgrounds along its shores, a point that was made at the December 12 Town Council meeting.

And according to Commissar Platner, the town will not in fact be on the hook for the costs of demolishing the buildings on the campground; that expense falls to the Charlestown Land Trust as the actual owner of the property. Though I seem to recall that at the December 12 meeting, Russ Ricci of the Land Trust asked the town to kick in the demo money as well. And anyway, Platner said, some of the buildings are really small and could be taken down by “volunteers.” (More on this breathtaking lack of regard for worker safety in a future post.) And besides, the DEM grant does not in fact require that the buildings be torn down, only that they can’t be used commercially. So why then does the grant, according to Platner at any rate, include $59,000 for demolition of the buildings? Does this $59,000 include the cost of liability insurance for these volunteer workers who will be tearing down the smaller structures? Alas, as I was not there in person and only on Clerkbase, I could not get my question answered.
Perhaps we can find some Amish folks to do a
reverse barn-raising.

Platner was also at pains to explain the difference between tax-exempt land and open space. According to her calculations, “only” 36% of the town is actual open space  as opposed to merely tax-exempt. But part of that open space is land owned by the Narragansetts, so really, no more than 30% of the town is open space. Clearly, that’s way too low for Ruth’s tastes and we need to beef that number up.

Oddly, her lengthy recitation of all the various types of tax-exempt properties failed to mention the tax exemptions available for farmland, including the Farm, Forest, and Open Space properties program, under which farms are taxed at a fraction of the market value. You’d think she’d know a little something about this seeing as how she owns one of them property that is deed-restricted for agricultural use and taxed at a fraction of full market value.

Oh, and the cost per student at Chariho has apparently gone up from $13,000 to $14,000. According to Ruth’s calculations, it takes $1.6 million worth of taxable property to pay for one student. So if each house was assessed at $500,000—which, she pointed out, is more than homes in the neighborhood are currently assessed at—the development could support at most three students. Apparently, Ruth looked in her crystal ball and found out that every single one of those 10 houses in Veazey’s plan would have been purchased as a year-round residence by people with children, and those same people would live here forever and their children would stay in school forever and never graduate. Wow, those poor kids. What a nightmare being in high school your entire life. What a relief that Veazey’s plan was rejected, as we’d have been paying way more in school fees than would have been generated in property taxes. 

Apparently, one reason the YMCA has been unable to unload the camp all these years is their insistence on a no-compete clause, meaning it could not continue to be used as a camp. According to Platner, DEM had been interested in purchasing the camp for use as a camp for severely disabled children, but this would have violated the no-compete clause. How a state-owned camp for wards of the state would be in “competition” with a camp run by a private nonprofit was another question I could not get answered via Clerkbase.

And then there’s the issues of handicapped access and parking. According to Ruth, we don’t need to be overly concerned about handicapped access since only a handful of people in town have handicapped parking stickers. This seemed like a curious point to make seeing as how the vehicles of out-of-state property owners are presumably registered in their home states, so how would we even know how many of them have handicapped stickers? (More on this in a future post.)

One answer to the question.
As far as parking goes, none of the abutters wants access to be through their neighborhood. Surprise, surprise: The NIMBYs strike again. Despite the fact that under any conceivable scenario, the traffic would be far less than when the Y was operating the camp—and possibly even less than there would have been if the Veazey development had been built: Ruth gave an estimate of 80 car trips a day for a subdivision of that size.

In a nutshell, the upshot of the meeting was that Ruth thinks the estimate of $475,000 total costs to the town is high and that the asking price will come down after the appraisal—the Y has already had one done but is not releasing it. Gee I wonder why. And it appears we may be spared the $10,000 survey fee; Ashley says there’s an existing survey. Still, the question remains: Why are we planning to spend $475,000 for a piece of land we won’t own, don’t really need, can’t use the way we want, is inaccessible to the handicapped, and which abutters don’t want anyone else to have access to?