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Monday, March 24, 2014

Moraine plan – an issue of trust

Who you are determines who you trust
By Will Collette
Tom Gentz just loves giving away Charlestown property 
and money to his pals

In the end, the Charlestown Town Council decided to accept the management plan for the Charlestown Moraine Preserve offered by the Conservation Commission at the June 10 Council meeting. 

The plan lays out potential uses of the land as a natural site featuring the special topography of the Charlestown glacial moraine. The plan calls for the 75 acre parcel on Route One, the former site of the proposed Whalerock wind project, to remain undeveloped and undisturbed except for some trails that the Nature Conservancy has volunteered to design for Charlestown.

The Conservation Commission also recommended the town not seek to grant a conservation easement on the land, ending another contentious aspect of the long-running battle over this land. Click here for the video. If the link doesn’t work, click here.

When Charlestown ended the long-running Whalerock battle by spending $2.1 million to buy the land, Town Council Boss Tom Gentz (CCA Party) announced that the town would also be seeking to give away a conservation easement to a non-municipal group and he prepared a memo listing several groups that had either expressed an interest in gaining an easement or whom he considered to be good candidates.

Like so many of his brainstorms, Gentz’s proposal drew immediate criticism. One key element of his plan, that the town simply give away the easement, turns out to be illegal. A conservation easement turns out to be a “property interest” under the law, a thing of value, and the town cannot simply give away a valuable property interest like this without putting it before voters for their approval.

It also turned out that all but one of the groups on Gentz’s list were not suitable. One of them, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, is a federal agency and cannot legally receive an easement from the town. Neither can the Arnolda Improvement Association nor the Frosty Drew Observatory who were both listed by Boss Gentz as groups who had asked for easements. Because neither group is principally engaged in conservation, they are ineligible under tax law.

The Audubon Society took a pass. The Nature Conservancy was only interested in offering free technical assistance on the trails. That left the Charlestown Land Trust as the last contender on Boss Gentz’s list. 

Readers may remember the central role played by the Land Trust in the 2012 Y-Gate Scandal where taxpayers were almost bilked out of just under a million dollars that was to be spent to buy the busted out abandoned Westerly YMCA campground on Watchaug Pond that turned out to be worth only a quarter of that price.

Boss Gentz and Land Trust leader Russ Ricci pushed hard for the town to authorize paying a quarter million dollars to the Land Trust so the Land Trust could, with state matching funds, pay the YMCA for the land. In return, Charlestown would get a conservation easement (yes, that term again) that turned out to be not what Gentz and Russ Ricci said it was.

In the end, public opinion turned against the deal and the YMCA ended up finding a private buyer who is leaving the land as it was, except for removing tons of dangerous debris that Charlestown almost ended up paying for.

The Conservation Commission recommended against working a conservation easement with the deal, not because the Land Trust almost screwed the town on the Y-Gate scam, but because the Trust brought nothing to the table. In the Conservation Commission’s opinion, the Trust didn't offer anything of value to the town in return for the property interest.

Even though Planning Commissar Ruth Platner and CCA Party pundit Mike Chambers lobbied hard to grant an easement to somebody, anybody, but most likely the Land Trust, even the CCA Town Council members had to admit that there was no support or basis for making the gift to the Land Trust.

Nonetheless, there was grumbling among the CCA supporters and followers who felt that they needed a guarantee – Commissar Platner called it “insurance” – in the form of an easement to prevent something evil from happening in the future. One of them said it was a matter of trust.

Indeed, CCA Pundit Chambers wrote to the Westerly Sun to accuse easement critic Deb Carney of being in league with developers because she felt it was unwise to lock up the land against any future need the town might have. Of course, Chambers failed to understand that if you’re going to take on Deb Carney, you better have your facts straight or you’re going to get your ass whooped, which is exactly what she dished out to him.

But the CCA Party does not have a monopoly either on trust or mistrust. While they are afraid that others might decide to pave over Charlestown, I think Charlestown residents have some real reasons to distrust the CCA Party. Just take a look at the Y-Gate Scandal. Or the phony Battle for Ninigret Park which turned out to be little more than a tissue of lies.

There’s no question that Charlestown is and has been deeply polarized, especially over land use issues. Since this is an election year, it’s only going to get worse, especially if the CCA Party runs another campaign as they have since their inception that is based on ginning up fear and mistrust against their imaginary boogeymen and fellow citizens.

For now, Charlestown has settled the matter of the Whalerock wind turbines, and now it has settled the matter of land rights to the former Whalerock property. While people may eye each other with suspicion for a long time, eventually we’ll come to the realization that we all live here and will have to find a better way to get along. It would help if Boss Gentz would give up trying to give away town land and money.