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Friday, November 30, 2012

Five reasons why Charlestown should get serious about buying LarryLand

Worried about a casino? About Whalerock?
By Will Collette

The election is over. The CCA tightened its grip on Charlestown government. Planning Commissar Ruth Platner is reviewing the catalogs looking for some Charlestown open space to buy for Christmas.

Here’s a Christmas gift suggestion: buy Larry LeBlanc’s 81 almost pristine acres sitting atop Charlestown’s moraine.

If the CCA is serious about open space (and we know they are), here are five reasons why now is the time to restart negotiations with LeBlanc.

Reason #1: Charlestown Indian Casino. 

Portion of the Charlestown moraine - note the circled area. That's Larryland
If the CCA really and truly fears the Narragansett Indian Tribe and really believes the tribe wants to build a casino in Charlestown, then let’s buy the most likely piece of land the tribe would need to acquire.

LeBlanc himself used the threat of a sale to the tribe to leverage the town during negotiations in 2008. He made the unverified claim that he had been approached by a casino promoter who offered him $20 million. At that time, LeBlanc offered the town the land for $5.5 million, then $4.5 million and then the Carcieri v. Salazar decision pretty blew up the deal.

 Unless the CCA is just blowing smoke about their casino fears, their majority on the Town Council can decisively end that specter by taking that land off the table. LeBlanc’s last offer was around $3 million. The land is assessed at around $1 million. There’s a deal to be made somewhere in between.

LeBlanc paid just over a million dollars originally and has claimed that he was asked to buy the land by the town with the understanding that the town would eventually buy the land from him. In his latest lawsuit against Charlestown, a reprise of his wind farm lawsuit, LeBlanc claims he has sunk $250,000 in experts and other costs for that project. I think LeBlanc is sending us a message about what a fair price might be.

Reason #2: Whalerock Industrial Wind Farm. 

Larry LeBlanc has also proposed building a wind farm on the site with two huge turbines. Nobody wants that project, probably not even LeBlanc himself, who had once said the project wasn’t even his idea but was suggested to him by a couple of former CCA-endorsed Town Council members. Charlestown has been, and now still is, embroiled in complex, expensive litigation over a project no one wants. Buy the damned land from LeBlanc and this headache is over. Including the lawsuits.

Reason #3: Affordable Housing. 

The CCA hates affordable housing, especially affordable housing projects proposed by for-profit developers. In 2008, LeBlanc proposed a 125-unit condominium project for the site. He has since filed another project application (at the same time that he’s been proposing the industrial wind farm), this time with 39 units.

His latest affordable housing scheme, like his proposed wind farm, is currently the subject of complex and expensive litigation against Charlestown. If Charlestown buys LarryLand, buh-bye to the odious housing development. And the lawsuits.

Reason #4: It will make Ruth Platner very happy. 

Platner and Gentz both said buying LarryLand is a great idea
Plus, we have the money. Planning Commissar Ruth Platner has been itching to spend the town’s Open Space/Recreation bond money on something for the past several years. In fact, she actually pitched buying LarryLand a couple of years ago, producing a minor historical moment when, at a Town Council meeting, she and I publicly agreed that buying LeBlanc’s land for open space was a good idea. Council President Tom Gentz thought it would be a great idea.

The Conservation Commission didn’t, but I think in this case, they should reconsider. What killed that moment of opportunity was the unwillingness of some of the crazier Ill Winders, who could not bring themselves to support any deal – even one in their self-interest – if it meant giving Larry LeBlanc a profit.

Reason #5: We might even get the state to pay for it. 

Rhode Island voters just approved the state’s bond measure that gives the Department of Environmental Management additional millions of dollars to buy open space. DEM has also demonstrated quite a talent at picking up strategic parcels of land at good prices when it does the deal itself. (Click here and here for examples, then compare that to Charlestown’s bumbling over the Westerly YMCA’s abandoned campground.) If the state bought LarryLand, they could manage it as part of Burlingame Park.

If for whatever reason, our CCA Town Council majority feels they have to listen to some addled Partridge who doesn’t want to negotiate with Larry LeBlanc, let’s see if we can get DEM to step in. When the idea of buying LarryLand was still alive, Ruth Platner even wrote a proposal to DEM to fund the acquisition.

Our federal overseer, Charlie Vandemoer, who runs the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, wrote a glowing letter recommending the acquisition of LarryLand as open space, giving all the scientific reasons why the land is the perfect complement to the refuge.

As much as I enjoy writing about such controversies as open space, the bogus casino threat, Larry LeBlanc and his various schemes to leverage the town into buying his land, it’s time to stop this nonsense. As a Charlestown resident and taxpayer, I think it is time we took that parcel of land off the table and resolve the genuine concerns of LarryLand’s neighbors as well as the town’s fears and divisions.

Buying the land ends the Whalerock controversy, makes a Charlestown casino just about impossible, blocks an affordable housing project the CCA hates, ends a bunch of pending lawsuits and preserves a long, unspoiled stretch of scenic Route One just opposite Ninigret Pond. 

Yes, LeBlanc will want to make a fair profit. The alternative is on-going costly litigation, anxiety for the neighbors and turmoil in the town. LeBlanc has been relentless in pitching one awful proposal after another to get the town to buy the land. In my opinion, it’s counter-productive not to find a fair price and make the deal.

Unless the CCA prefers exploiting all these gut-wrenching issues to use to their political advantage.