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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

“Dissident minority,” or silent majority?

Unpacking the CCA’s spin on the upcoming ballot questions

By Linda Felaco

If you’ve visited the website of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance[1] lately, or the letters pages of the Westerly Sun, you’ve no doubt noticed that the CCA spin machine has gone into hyperdrive over the questions that will be appearing on the ballot at the upcoming town budget vote on June 1. Though as usual, one doesn’t have to scratch far below the surface to see how self-serving (or simply untrue) the CCA’s arguments are.

Cliff Vanover, a member of both the CCA Steering Committee and the town Zoning Board of Review, took to the pages of the Westerly Sun to inform us that “numbers show open space can pay for itself.” I found this an interesting argument to try to make in light of the current debate going on in the General Assembly regarding the land that was freed up when the entrance to I-195 was moved, the general consensus being let’s do something with that land, because leaving it vacant is of no help to our economy whatsoever. But Vanover, ever the one-trick pony, has been trotting out his discredited arguments about the supposed fiscal benefits that accrue from doing nothing for years now and clearly isn’t about to stop. 

Simple arithmetic would indicate that taking property off the tax rolls decreases total tax revenue, which is why our tax rates have gone up steadily from year to year under CCA rule, to compensate for the reduction in the number of tax-paying properties.[2] But Cliff pulled some numbers out of his hat and determined that building houses causes a net tax loss, whereas acquiring land as open space spares us from all those tax losses we’d incur from having, you know, actual taxable properties on it. Excuse me while I go get some aspirin.

Now, Cliff had the good sense not to spell out his real objection to residential properties for the readers of the Westerly Sun, but in the CCA campaign literature and on their website they’re brutally honest about what they consider to be an unbearable drain on the town’s coffers, namely families with school-age children.[3] They even went to the lengths of creating a “cost of development” calculator that purports to demonstrate the tax losses from allowing new homes to be built. And they encouraged people to look around their own neighborhoods, tot up the number of children, and calculate for themselves how much those little parasites were sucking out of us.

Mathematical proof that children are parasites.
Courtesy of the CCA.
Again, common sense tells you it cannot possibly be true that residential properties create a net tax loss, or every city and town across the country where population is increasing would be sinking inexorably further and further into debt. Even a cursory look at municipal bankruptcies would tell you that generally they’re not caused by hordes of parasitic families moving in and demanding schools for their children but by tax-paying businesses moving out. But the CCA has never been known to let a pesky little thing like logic stand in the way of their self-serving rhetoric.

Meanwhile, the CCA Steering Committee informs us that “Question 1 Will Protect Agriculture and Our Rural Character.” Because of course in the CCA’s apocalyptic worldview, our “rural character” is ever under constant threat.[4] We’re told that while “the November 2014 election ballot included a state question that provided $3M to protect Rhode Island’s working farms, … without local matching funds, none of this money will be spent in Charlestown.”

Which is true as far as it goes. But is writing the CCA a $2 million check the only way to provide those local matching funds? And is the CCA pledging to use the bond funds for that purpose, and only that purpose? They seem to be oddly noncommittal, saying only that “With the passage of Question 1 on the June 1st ballot, we could have available funds in the coming years.” [emphasis mine]

Call me crazy, or maybe just a democrat, small d, but we could, actually, ya know, hold a referendum on each individual property as the situation arises instead of handing the CCA our credit card and telling them to decide what to buy and when, which they then give control of to their friends.

The CCA Steering Committee makes a similar argument in a subsequent piece about protecting the undeveloped land along the Pawcatuck. “All of this remaining land along the river may eventually be developed”![5] Sound the alarm!

“But we believe there is still time to save some of it”! Whew, what a relief. “DEM and the Nature Conservancy have made preservation of land along the Pawcatuck a priority, but their investment usually requires matching funds, funds that might be available if voters approve Question 1 at the June 1st referendum.” Funds, of course, that could also be available by other means than by writing the CCA a $2 million check and letting them decide what to buy and when, which they then give control of to their friends.

There is in fact a clear and present danger to the Pawcatuck, however, namely the Copar/Armetta quarry off Route 91 right in Charlestown—a danger Charlestown has failed to mitigate. Except in this case, the danger will not be mitigated simply by buying property along the river, with or without a DEM easement, as the hazards of dust, noise, and pollution emanating from the quarry know no property boundaries and respect no easements.

Regarding easements, ballot question #2 seeks to give away a conservation easement on the Charlestown Moraine Preserve to a party or parties unnamed, possibly a wealthy private organization with close ties to the CCA. In the Westerly Sun, Planning Commissar Ruth Platner argues for the easement by recounting a litany of alleged misdeeds by previous town councils relating to various open space properties and even invokes the specter of the dreaded casino. Because of course there’s no surer way to rile up the CCA base. Never mind that we’re just across the state line from the largest casino in the Western Hemisphere, Foxwoods, which has been on the verge of bankruptcy as gambling revenue has been on the decline, as well as the second-largest casino in the Western Hemisphere, namely Mohegan Sun. Or that Twin Rivers is currently seeking to build a new facility in Tiverton, which is planned as a countermove to the likely resort casino that is expected to be built in New Bedford, creating yet more competition for this mythical Charlestown casino in an already-saturated market.

Because really what it comes down to is a matter of trust—and the CCA trusts no one but themselves. Essentially, what the CCA is saying is, “We don't trust you, the taxpayers who are footing the bill for this property, to manage it properly, and so we need to act in loco parentis.”

Also on the subject of question #2, CCA resident pundit Michael Chambers, recipient of a patronage appointment to the Zoning Board of Review for his loyal service to the party, helpfully informs us that while large recreational facilities like parks (hint, hint) can actually detract from neighboring property values because of the “nuisance factor,” large forest tracts increase property values within a 2.5-mile radius. And just who do you suppose lives within 2.5 miles of the Charlestown Moraine Preserve?

But I don’t want to accuse Chambers of being completely self-serving, because his reference to recreational parks being “perceived as unsafe[6], unnecessary,[7] under used or overused, and a source of noise pollution, thereby detracting from property values” is of course also a subtle dig at the Ninigret bond question, not to mention devoid of one single shred of evidence or documentation. The Arnoldans, another key CCA constituency, have historically opposed any activity in the park that might involve, you know, people actually going to the park. So while Chambers wants us to vote yes on the easement, he’s also telegraphing his opposition to the Ninigret bond. Though I understand he’s pretty active with the Rhythm and Roots festival and so might actually secretly favor the Ninigret bond and the dogwhistle might be for the benefit of his CCA overlords. Oh what a bind poor Mike must be in.

Which brings me to CCA Councilor George Tremblay. Tremblay has been known to occasionally wander off the reservation and say things that aren’t in the CCA script, such as his shocking admission during a council meeting a couple of years ago that the CCA was giving control of Ninigret Park to the Arnoldans and that it made him mad. Tremblay has now been herded firmly back into the fold and informs us via the Westerly Sun that the Ninigret bond question is the product of a “dissident minority.” He invokes the specter of California-esque government dysfunction were we to empower said dissident minority to take matters into their own hands and force the Town Council to do that which it has been dragging its feet on for lo these past 7 years, namely, putting the Ninigret Park Master Plan into action.

I think Tremblay’s “dissident minority” is in fact the tip of the iceberg of a silent majority—that same silent majority that came out to the polls in 2011 and won us our lovely new beach pavilions. On June 1, let’s send a message to the CCA that we’re tired of the cronyism and obstructionism. Vote no on the two CCA-sponsored questions (#1 and #2) and yes on the Ninigret bond.

[1] Which I find works better than Ipecac.
[2] Though we did actually catch a break with the Y camp deal, since it ended up being sold to a private party and so is now back on the tax rolls after decades of tax-free ownership by nonprofits.
[3] More on this in a future post.
[4] Much like the radical right’s paranoia that Obama is going to take away their guns, or invade Texas.
[5] Though this imminent development might be news to whoever owns that 2+ acres of waterfront property where Biscuit City Road dead ends at the river, which has been for sale since before I bought my house in 2009.
[6] Huh? Says who?
[7] Again, can we get some references for this, Mike?