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Monday, May 25, 2015

We have enough open space in Charlestown

It’s time for some recreation
By Linda Felaco

A version of this article ran in the Westerly Sun on May 21st as a letter to the editor.

On Monday, June 1, Charlestown voters will be presented with two warrant items, both initiated by the Town Council, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA), as well as a citizens’ petition that is most decidedly not CCA-endorsed and that the CCA would squash if it could.

Warrant Question #1 would authorize $2 million in bond funding for open space purchases, and only open space. Past bond authorizations have been for open space and recreation, but the CCA party opposes recreational facilities. 

Witness their rabid but ultimately ineffectual opposition to the beach pavilions in 2011 and their recent ouster of Parks and Recreation Director Jay Primiano, whose job has not even been advertised by the town despite the imminent start of the busy summer season. So this time the CCA is not even suggesting that any of the bond money could be spent for recreational purposes at all.

The CCA maxed out their last open space credit card on the 2013 purchase of the 75 acres on the Charlestown Moraine formerly known as Whalerock, so the CCA spins this question as “replenishing the town’s depleted open space funds.” 

Because the sale price offered on the moraine property was exactly the same as the amount of the then-available bond funding, mirabile, mirabilis, the CCA was able to authorize the purchase on their own recognizance without putting it to the voters as they had demanded with the beach pavilions. 

Now, like junkies needing their next fix, the CCA Party’s leaders are jonesing at the thought of having to go hat in hand to the voters for the money to buy the next parcel that comes along.

Yet in all this frantic talk of needing to “replenish” the open space cookie jar, unmentioned is the 200 acres of land zoned Planned Development that was bought by the Nature Conservancy last December and added to the open space rolls. Oh, but that doesn’t count because it wasn’t given to friends of the CCA. And the CCA surely doesn’t want to bring that up because people might think we don’t need more open space right away.

Each new land purchase makes the CCA salivate for more and they quickly forget the previous ones, like Imelda Marcos with her closets full of unworn shoes. Just try finding, say, a map of any of the town-owned hiking trails at Town Hall or on the town website. 

The reason you can’t may or may not have something to do with the fact that CCA stalwart Cliff Vanover sells trail maps for a living. Though now that the CCA is plumping for a new open-space bond they’ve posted an open-space guide—on their own website, not the town’s.

Which brings me to Warrant Question #2, which asks voters to authorize the Town Council, every single current member of which was endorsed by the CCA, to transfer control of the newly purchased Moraine Preserve, possibly to a private group that might just happen to be friends of the CCA. 

Buying the land with open space funds means it can’t be used for anything else until it’s paid for, and even then it would require a townwide vote. 

But the CCA board members, supporters, fundraisers, and financial donors who live near the moraine are still terrified of that land actually being used somehow. 

So in the CCA spin machine (Lather. Rinse. Repeat.), this question becomes “partnering” to “permanently protect the conservation value” of the preserve—“at no cost to the taxpayers”! “No cost,” that is, except the $2 million we’re already paying. Plus interest. Plus the lost tax revenue. In perpetuity.

How long can we keep taking property off the tax rolls and raising the rates on the rest of us taxpayers? Between town, state, and federal parks and wildlife refuges, plus open space owned by nonprofits, fake fire districts, or private individuals that is subject either to a conservation easement or to lower taxes under the Farms, Forest and Open Space program, more than half of all the land area of Charlestown is either nontaxable or subject to substantially reduced tax rates.

That tally doesn’t include yet another parcel that was just converted from residential to open space when the state Water Resources Board purchased it to set aside the groundwater resources for some future time when Charlestown needs it.

Meanwhile, a group of citizens seeks to authorize $1 million in bond funding in order to finally begin carrying out the 2008-2014 Ninigret Park master plan. This question (called Petition #1 on the ballot) will also appear on the ballot on June 1. If approved, this money could also be used for long-neglected park maintenance.

The CCA spin machine calls this “appropriating $1 million through a construction bond toward build-out of Ninigret Park.” “Construction” of any kind gives the CCA the vapors. Planning Commissioner Ruth Platner, who has no legal authority to levy fines, once coerced a local company to donate $1000 to the Nature Conservancy rather than have to tear up a parking lot they’d had the audacity to pave without consulting her first. 

So, in CCA-speak, improving the park becomes “construction” and “build-out.” Trigger words the CCA has always used, usually without justification, to rile up their followers.

Ultimately, voters are being presented with two competing visions of open space. In the CCA vision, we hoover up all available properties to make sure no one else ever gets their hands on them or even gets to use them—ourselves included.

The citizens’ petition, in contrast, would enhance one of our existing properties and increase the variety of recreational activities available, thereby providing health and other benefits to the town—without further reducing our tax base.

On June 1, vote no on the open space bond, if for no other reason than to stop signaling to sellers how much we’re willing to pay; no to giving up control of the moraine preserve; and yes on the Ninigret Park recreation bond.