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Friday, April 29, 2016

Ballot question to save the General Stanton Inn will go to the voters at June Town Financial Referendum

150 more signatures than needed certified

Budget hearing on Monday

By Will Collette

Reliable sources tell me that on April 26, the Charlestown Board of Canvassers certified 351 names on the petitions turned in by the Friends of the General Stanton Inn.

The group needed 200 signatures to bring the question of a $1.75 million town purchase of the iconic building before the voters at the June 6 Town Financial Referendum.

This question, as well as the entire Charlestown budget, which calls for the eighth property tax hike in a row, will be discussed at the May 2 Budget Hearing.

While subject to discussion, the petition puts the issue on the June 6 ballot whether or not the Town Council, consisting entirely of members of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) agrees.

If you read the comments posted by CCA Party faithful on the official CCA blog, it appears the CCA Party is, at best, lukewarm to the idea. After all, it’s not open space that would be protected, but rather Charlestown’s history.

When I first suggested Charlestown should buy the Inn – this was after the Town Council rejected the planned use of the building as a rehab center by the last group that offered to buy it – it seemed logical to me. Charlestown’s economy – according to the town itself – is based almost entirely on tourism.

If we want tourists to come year round, we need to do more with the town’s historic Cross’ Mills village district than simply restrict the color of roof shingles and light fixtures. The Inn is the de facto hub of that district. Saving it is a minimal duty we all have, but why not use that building as a showcase of Charlestown history?

You would think that saving the Inn and turning it into a lively village historical center would be something that would span Charlestown’s political chasms.

I’m hoping it still will bring people together over something that could become a source of pride for all. But maybe not.

CCA blog commenters raised concerns that no commercial buyers have come forward (actually not true – the Council rejected the last buyer; prior commercial owners did not treat the building kindly). Others noted building might be in bad shape. Built in 1667, yes, the Inn is fixer-upper as are most historical buildings. Still others objected saying it’s a bail-out deal.

When Charlestown makes such acquisitions, it’s almost always viewed as a “bail-out” for somebody.

Remember “Y-Gate?” We almost bought the derelict YMCA camp on Watchaug Pond to “bail-out” the Sonquipaug neighborhood who wanted the land kept vacant so they could use it as extensions of their backyards.

We bought the Charlestown Moraine Preserve to “bail-out” the Sachem Pass neighborhood who were adamantly opposed to the proposed Whalerock wind turbine project.

We just paid price well over the assessed value for a piece of somewhat open space property on the pretext the buyer would build homes for families with kids (not true) – and because Planning Commissar Ruth Platner had some fresh open space bond money burning a hole in her pocket.

The real questions on any taxpayer-funded purchase should be is it a reasonable deal and is the purchase a benefit for the town.

CCA Party co-founder Kate Waterman, who is still on the CCA Party Steering Committee even though she lives in Connecticut, raised the question about other historic properties, stating that the Wilcox Tavern and even the Shelter Harbor Inn (which is actually in Westerly) are up for sale.

Sure. Those properties, and others, in and around Charlestown, are important parts of our history.

That’s why, in my original suggestion, I proposed that Charlestown needed to create a bond pool for historic preservation, in the same way that we usually keep some money set aside for open space. If the Wilcox Tavern faced demolition to become the site of another Dunkin Donuts, I'd say that would warrant town intervention.

Like our uses of other bond funds, historic preservation bonds could be combined with other money from grants or partnerships.

I think the need to preserve the General Stanton is critical and urgent. I hope it’s not the last and only time Charlestown takes affirmative steps to preserve its history.

The most ominous comments on the CCA Party website come from Town Councilor George Tremblay (CCA Party) that broadly hints what the CCA might do to thwart the anticipated “yes” vote by Charlestown voters:
“To be clear: The Town Council is not involved or even consulted in this initiative. It is solely the property of the voters who sign the petition. If enough people sign the petition to put an item on the ballot, then the ballot becomes the property of the voters. Only after the voters approve the ballot item does the Town Council have a say. The voter-approved ballot item authorizes the Town Council to borrow the money to buy the inn. It is at that late point that the Town Council becomes engaged. It must decide what conditions for borrowing the money best serve the public interest. – Town Councilor George Tremblay 
The term for refusing to spend the money is “impoundment.” It is variation on a manuever we’ve seen the CCA Party pull before.

Most recently, the CCA Party hijacked most of the $1 million approved by voters for recreation to build a bicycle track at Ninigret Park that is really unnecessary (except as a thing the CCA can name after Faith LaBossiere) and a playground set-up that was not on the town’s Parks & Recreation Commission’s priority list.

Hopefully, voter support for this ballot initiative will be strong enough so that even the most ornery or skeptical CCA Party member will see that this is a good thing for Charlestown.

The first test to see whether this initiative will unify Charlestown, or further divide it, will be Monday night’s hearing.