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Friday, August 23, 2013

Town Council makes one good decision, one bad one and opens up a can of worms

Classic example of how to screw up a consensus
By Will Collette

It was no surprise that the Town Council decided to go ahead with the $2,114,415 purchase of the site of the proposed Whalerock wind farm. 

This issue passed the point of getting on everyone’s last nerve months and months ago, and had been causing mass hysteria on the moraine. 

Support spans the spectrum – even Ruth Platner and I were on the same side, at least as far as the merits of the town buying the land.

However, the CCA Party Council majority rejected calls from many citizens that a purchase this big should go before the voters to honor the CCA Council members’ past promises and past precedents, if not the strictures of the Town Charter. But Town Council Boss Tom Gentz insisted that this is the way it had to be, and hey, he IS Boss Gentz and he had the votes of his two CCA Party colleagues (Deputy Dan Slattery and George Tremblay) and their ally Councilor Lisa DiBello.

Only Councilor Paula Andersen (D) voted no, not because she opposed the purchase, but because she wanted the Council to honor the democratic process, past promises and precedent.

The CCA Party sez "we don't need no
steekin' voting"
The town will be getting less land for its money, it turns out. Some of the land in the two house lots being carved out of the land – land that Larry LeBlanc’s partner wants to develop – contained steeply sloped land and that made the lots too small to meet Charlestown’s current zoning ordinance. The recently passed “slopes” bill, opposed by Charlestown and other rural towns, would have allowed the smaller lots with the sloped land, but that new legislation doesn’t kick in until the New Year[1].

And the Council and the Whalerock developers want to do the sale immediately. So there goes three acres[2]. Apparently, one of the factors that made Gentz and his cronies toss their past promises to put this matter up to a vote is the threat by Whalerock’s lawyer John Kenyon (attorney for James Barrows) that his client was NOT willing to see the matter go to a vote[3]. He said that if the matter went to the taxpayers, his client would want to continue the goddawful Zoning Board appeal process[4].

Here comes another CCA Party con job, just in time for International
Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19)
But another controversy is brewing that might end up costing Charlestown taxpayers a lot more than those acres, and indeed might mean Charlestown loses the whole parcel. The CCA Party town leaders – Boss Gentz and the Council majority and Planning Commissar Ruth Platner and her compliant commissionettes – want Charlestown to give away the land to some other entity.

Some of the same players who were central figures in last year’s Y-Gate scandal, among them Charlestown Land Trust leader Russ Ricci[5], lined up to boost the idea of granting a conservation easement to the Trust, or perhaps the Nature Conservancy or some other group, rather than keep the land under the town’s exclusive ownership. 

Charlestown, it’s time to hold on to your wallets, again.

Boss Gentz reads his resolution. Councilor DiBello looks like she
wishes she was someplace else.
It’s amazing to me how readily Platner[6] and Gentz would give a million here, two million there, to benefit their cronies. This is Charlestown taxpayers’ money and it’s Charlestown taxpayers who will be paying more in annual property taxes to support the costs of this purchase.

What do those taxpayers get when Gentz and Platner give it away? As we learned during last year’s battle over the aborted YMCA camp deal, control by outside groups often means restrictions on the use and access to land by Charlestown residents[7].

If the Town Council majority had hoped that they could make the Whalerock nightmare go away by taking tonight’s vote to go ahead and spend every nickel of Open Space/Recreation money the town has left, without taking a vote, they should have thought through their plans for the future use of the land.

The CCA Council majority is going to take a bit of a hit for breaking their promises and ignoring the democratic process, but I think a lot of Charlestown voters have gotten used to their dishonorable conduct. 

As long as the CCA Party can get its big turn-outs in Charlestown’s third precinct[8], they can continue to tell the rest of Charlestown's residents to go screw themselves.

But the land giveaway keeps this issue alive by taking it into an entirely different direction.  

Whereas I believe there was and is a genuine majority, if not consensus, supporting the town’s acquisition of the Whalerock property, I doubt support is there for paying $2 million and then giving it away. Remember how arrogant Boss Gentz and his allies were when they started last year's Y-Gate scam, and how that did not turn out well for them.

There’s also the small matter of town law. Under the Town Charter, the Town Council cannot simply give away the land, or in this case, an interest[9] in the land, no matter what Boss Gentz and his cronies decide. Here’s the relevant part of the Charter:

Manner of conveying real estate or changing use.

[Amended 11-7-2006] The town, by ordinance enacted by the council specifying at least generally the terms, conditions, manner of sale, lease or change in use, and describing at least generally the particular property to be sold, leased, conveyed or have its use changed, may from time to time sell, lease, convey or use for any other public or municipal purpose or purposes, or for any purpose whatsoever (subject to approval by vote of any Budget Public Hearing after special mention has been made and notice given of the proposal in the warrant issued for the warning of that meeting), any real estate or interests therein owned by the town which have been purchased, acquired, used or dedicated in any manner for municipal or other public purposes, whenever, in the opinion of the Council and the Budget Public Hearing, said real estate or interests therein have become unsuitable or have ceased to be used for such purposes. In the same manner the town may sell, lease or convey any real estate or interests therein held in its proprietary capacity and not dedicated or devoted to public use.

What's the future of the Temple of Turbomania?
Personally, I am glad the town is going to buy the Whalerock property. 

I also believe it should go to a vote, but the CCA Party leaders don’t, and they control the Council and the rest of town government. They can count on Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero to give them a "legal" opinion that lines up with what they want to do. 

I will be glad to hear the last from the crazies on the moraine. I will be glad to know that those farcical, frankly embarrassing, Zoning Board hearings will not continue.

I also hope Charlestown will focus on real issues rather than imaginary ones. The residents fighting the Copar Quarries are dealing with real threats to their homes and health and deserve fair and equal support from the town, at least as much as the town gave the anti-wind power NIMBYs.

However, this issue will morph into something different that promises to be yet another ugly and divisive battle if the CCA Party pushes its idea to give the land away. They just can’t be content with resolving this one crisis without creating another one.

They will have a chance, once again, to demonstrate to Charlestown voters that their real agenda has nothing to do with the majority of residents, voters and taxpayers, but with gifting their political supporters and campaign donors with public resources they simply do not deserve.

Well, here’s to the likely end of one fight, and the beginning of another.


[1] Funny how this kind of issue comes around and bites you in the ass.

[2] Boss Gentz noted that the lead negotiators for the town were Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz and Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero. I guess they took time out from their other big priority – burying town records in mayonnaise jars under I-95 bridge abutments in Providence.

[3] Frank Glista stood and testified that this was “blackmail.” Joe Dolock raised the point that skipping the vote could lead to more litigation and that getting voter approval puts this purchase on much more solid legal ground.

[4] Believe me, the last thing I want to see is more of those poorly run Zoning Board hearings where it was pretty clear to many that (a) the Zoning Board was going to turn down Whalerock’s special use permit application, but (b) were going to do so in such a faulty manner that (c) Whalerock would likely win an appeal in Superior Court and get the green light to build the turbines. But Frank Glista was right to call it blackmail.

[5] It’s worth re-reading some of that Y-Gate material, especially about the secret meetings and deals and most especially Russ Ricci’s extraordinary deposition in one of the Y-Gate lawsuits where Ricci’s testimony underscored just how sleazy a Charlestown land deal can get.

[6] Platner has personal ties to several of the conservation groups that could raise significant conflict of interest questions.

[7] We learned during the Y-Gate Scandal that most of the Charlestown Land Trust’s properties are only accessible by appointment or by going along on a pre-arranged guided tour.

[8] Charlestown has four precincts. The third precinct is in the southwest corner and takes in East and West Beach, Quonnie, Shady Harbor and most of Charlestown’s tonier areas.

[9] A conservation easement is an “interest” in the land that has value. We learned a lot about such easements during the Y-Gate Scandal.