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Thursday, May 8, 2014

UPDATED: VIDEO: Charlestown budget hearing draws few town voters

UPDATED: Lots of sparks over plan to sell town-owned beach access to group of mostly non-residents
By Will Collette
swag animated GIFIt was great to see Henry Walsh, Charlestown Town Moderator, back in the saddle and presiding over the annual town budget hearing on May 5. Henry’s been ailing and we’ve all been pulling for him to make a full recovery. Great to see you on the job, Henry.

Too bad only 11 voters turned out, just one more than required to meet the quorum requirement of ten. Even at that, at least two of the people at the hearing were not Charlestown voters, as they are non-residents. They came to argue in favor of the proposed ballot question that would allow the town to sell them a town-owned beach path.

The actual budget drew no comments at all. Even though this budget contains the sixth consecutive property tax increase pushed by the CCA Party majority that has controlled the Town Council since 2008, the budget was not debated.

So the budget, and the separate ballot question of whether the town should spend $260,000 to re-build the Ninigret Park tennis courts will go to the voters on June 2, unless the Town Council decides to make changes at its Monday meeting on May 12.

The bulk of the 30 minute budget hearing was devoted to debate over whether the town should sell the 5 foot by 170 foot long path that leads from Charlestown Beach Road to the public beach

The neighbors of the beach path want the town to sell it to them because – they say – rowdy kids and other bad people are using the path to do terrible and illegal things on the beach like drinking, smoking and using bad language. These neighbors also allege that many of these bad people trespass on their property but that they don't want to bother the police.

A new detail was added by Kyle Donovan (correction) Nick Augelli, who gave his address as 673 Charlestown Beach Road, but is actually a full-time resident of Waterbury, CT. who is one of the few permanent residents among the beach owner group. He reports that on a Prom Night, you can find lots of kids under the houses doing something nasty. We will have to take his word for it and use our imaginations as to what they were doing as Mr. Donovan Augelli offered no proof, photos or video.

However, I did a little digging and found what may be the proof positive for Mr. Donovan's Augelli's claims:

Kyle Donovan, one of the few full-time residents promoting the sale, spoke in favor of the deal as he did at an earlier Town Council meeting. Two of Donovan's non-resident neighbors also spoke in favor of the sale:  Dudley Bennett, who gave his address as 15 Potter Road although he is a full-time East Greenwich resident, also spoke in favor of the sale of the beach path.

It’s easy to see where property owners actually live. Just run the address through the Charlestown tax assessor database.

So, of the eleven people who comprised the quorum for this meeting, at least two were not voters or residents of Charlestown. I have asked for an official clarification to determine if this affects the legitimacy of the budget hearing and for a copy of the official sign-in sheet. I will report the answers I get.

UPDATE: I received a copy of the official sign-in sheet from Town Clerk Amy Weinreich on Friday that resolves these questions. See a copy to the right. 

It shows twelve names, with one scratched off for an official quorum of eleven. It does not include the two non-residents and one resident from the group who want to buy the beach path from the town.

Three people spoke against the ballot question to authorize the sale of the land: town resident Pat Kent, former Town Council President Deb Carney and Budget Commission Chair Dick Sartor.

Pat Kent defended the need for the town to maintain as much beach access as it can and noted that this proposal to sell the beach path is emblematic of the increasing favoritism Charlestown town government shows to beach property owners over the needs and interests of the rest of the town.

It's rare to see Deb Carney and Dick Sartor on the same side of any issue, but on this occasion, they were in accord that selling the beach path is a bad idea. Both presented very different, but equally compelling, reasons why the Council should kill this ballot question and not send it to the voters.

This is the town policy that sale of the beach path would violate
Deb Carney picked up on the importance of maintaining as many points of access to the beach as possible. 

She then dropped the bombshell that this proposed sale is actually contrary to Charlestown’s Comprehensive Plan.

Quoting from the Plan, Deb said that this beach path is called for by the Comprehensive Plan, in particular Natural Resources Policy #6 (page 33), and noted that the problems cited by the property owners of rowdy behavior on the beach would not be solved by the sale.

In times past, the CCA Party has held Charlestown’s Comprehensive Plan to be its sacred Bible. At least they did when it suited their purposes such as killing the proposed conservation development Ted Veazey wanted to build on the old YMCA campground on Watchaug Pond. That action was the first step in what became the Y-Gate Scandal.

But at the March Council meeting, it was the three CCA boys on the Council – Boss Tom Gentz, Dan Slattery and George Tremblay – who voted to advance the proposal to sell the beach path, with Councilors Paula Andersen (D) and Lisa DiBello voting no.

Photo of the 2012 dredging work by Tom Ferrio
Former Town Administrator and now town budget commission chair Dick Sartor threw another monkey-wrench into the deal. He reminded the Council that on a regular basis, dredging and beach repairs have to be done. This is costly but necessary work. 

The cost of the work is greatly increased when the town doesn’t have the right of way it needs to temporarily run the piping. 

On one occasion, the piping had to be run an additional long distance because a beach front owner denied the town access. 

Sartor argued that Charlestown should retain ownership of that strip of land as a matter of “significant public safety.”

The fate of this ballot question next lies with the Town Council which has the option of pulling it. Their last chance to decide go or no-go on this bad idea is next Monday.

The way it stands, the main reason in favor of selling the land is the CCA Party’s desire to pander to beach property owners and non-residents who are a critical part of their campaign donor base.

The arguments made by the property owners that if the town sells them the beach path, all their problems and all the bad people will go away has been thoroughly debunked.

The reasons why this ballot question should be withdrawn are clear:
  • Public access to the beach should be preserved and protected;
  • The Charlestown Comprehensive Plan calls for the town to actually acquire MORE such beach paths like the one that is proposed for sale. This proposal is actually violates the Comprehensive Plan. That could lead to some unwanted legal problems.
  • Keeping town ownership of that beach path is a “significant public safety” issue. It will also save the town a lot of money the next time dredging needs to be done.
If this measure survives the Council’s final action on the budget ballot on Monday, it will go to the voters on June 2 where those non-residents who have been pushing the sale will not be eligible to vote.