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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Here we go again with ANOTHER questionable land deal

DEM awards Charlestown a $400,000 matching grant for SECRET land deal

By Will Collette

Today, the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) announced that Charlestown has been awarded a $400,000 to buy a secret piece of land from an anonymous owner for a total price not disclosed to the public.

This is the way Charlestown Planning Commissar Ruth Platner and the CCA majority on the Town Council wanted it. 

You have to go back to the Council’s October 12, 2021. Watch the video through the town's website, starting at the IQM2 portal and then follow the trail of breadcrumbs. Discussion starts at 2 hours, 22 minutes into the meeting.

Here’s the DEM announcement about the grant:

The Open Space grants being awarded today to protect 400 acres of open space and farmland include:

Town of Charlestown: $400,000 grant to acquire 90 acres of forestland in northern Charlestown. The property contains an important wetland complex that surrounds Saw Mill Pond. The land is part of a greater than 250-acre area of unfragmented forest and is nearly contiguous with The Nature Conservancy's Carter Preserve, which includes 1,000+ acres of conservation land.

The only new information we get from this announcement is that its approximate location, but not the seller or the asking price.

DEM open space grants are awarded as a 50-50 match with the state’s share capped at $400,000. This means the asking price for the property is at least $800,000.

But we don’t know the actual number because the CCA majority voted 3-2 at the October 2021 meeting to back this motion by Bonnie Van Slyke authorizing the grant application but keeping the owner’s name, price and location secret. 

Motion to authorize Town Staff to Apply for a 2022 Open Space Grant through the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) as requested by the Town Planner, Jane Weidman, and to authorize the Town Administrator to file the application with the RIDEM and to provide additional information and/or documentation as required.

Besides Van Slyke, the other two CCA Councilors to vote for this secret land deal are former Eagle Scout Cody Clarkin and Susan Cooper.

Council President Deb Carney argued against the motion largely on the basis that the public has the right to know who, where, and how much especially since this matter was being discussed in an open meeting. Councilor Grace Klinger objected because this process was being so rushed.

Carney also raised questions about added costs from buying this property such as adding and maintaining trails, parking, etc. She noted that Charlestown has not put enough money into maintaining the properties the town already owns.

The CCA Councilors all argued that they needed to chase the DEM funding and that all those pesky questions – the who, where and how much (like the asking price and additional costs) – can be answered later. If you don't believe me, watch the video of the Oct. 12 Council meeting.

The CCA posted an item on this grant on its website earlier today with a catalog of all the trees, rocks, bushes and critters on the land but nothing about who owns it, its exact location and most importantly, how much it's going to cost us. But then, they don't care about those details.

This is the third shady land deal pushed by the CCA in the last 15 months starting with the aborted SPA-Gate deal followed by the incredible Tucker Estates rip-off.


As you may recall, the Sachem Passage Association (SPA) proposed to sell the town a small, bug-infested swamp on Foster Cove for $426,000 even though the property was assessed at only $61,900. Tax Assessor Ken Swain prepared a memo explaining why the land was assessed so low at the request of Town Planner Jane Weidman.

Swain noted how numerous legal and regulatory restrictions rendered the property unbuildable. But only days after receiving Swain’s memo, Weidman ignored his findings and submitted a grant application to DEM requesting 50% of the SPA’s appraisal of $426,000.

The appraisal was based on the fictitious assumption that the land was buildable even though it is not. On the basis of that false information, DEM awarded Charlestown a grant for $213,000 but required the town to do its own, presumably honest appraisal.

That new appraisal came in at $75,000, slightly more than the town’s tax assessment. The SPA gagged on that new price, the deal fell through and Charlestown had to tell DEM we would not be taking the grant money after all.

Read more about SPA-Gate HERE and HERE.

Tucker Estates

Tucker Estates was another case where the seller’s price and the town’s tax assessment differed wildly. The town assessed the property at $333,600 while the seller wanted almost three times that.

This time, instead of working off of an appraisal from the seller, Town Planner Weidman commissioned two different appraisals, tweaking the conditions each time to get a higher price. None of them met the owner’s price so the owner submitted his own appraisal that gave the property’s value at $915,000 but said he’d give Charlestown a discount, taking the price down to $900,000 which the town accepted.

I’ve asked why it’s the town staff’s job to manipulate appraisals to get a higher price for private land sellers (in this case a South Kingstown developer). I’ve never gotten an answer.

Charlestown submitted a grant application that won a grant of $400,000 from DEM, the maximum amount DEM awards. Using the $400,000 from DEM, Charlestown’s share was $500,000 for property only worth $333,600 according to our Tax Assessor.

Even though the direct cost to Charlestown taxpayers was $500,000 in this rip-off, the state funds that were used are also taxpayers money.

On to the next dirty deal

These are the two immediate past precedents. Whether we have learned anything at all from these bad experiences remains to be seen. Our history shows that Charlestown, or at least the CCA, has no learning curve and that Ruth Platner’s insatiable appetite for more and more open space will prevail over all.

You can bet that Planning Commissar Platner and her CCA puppets on the Council will fight to the death to buy the mystery property at some ridiculous price, no matter what anyone in the public says.

After all, the CCA has the 3-2 majority and can count on the votes of all three of their Council minions to spend your money regardless of the facts.

You can also bet that Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz will use every trick in the book to block any attempts to reveal any embarrassing details about this deal, as he did with the other dirty deals.

One other fact to consider: Charlestown’s Open Space fund may be in deficit even though there is still some bonding authority that has been left unused. The Budget Commission likes to spend cash rather than issue low-interest bonds because its chair, Dick Sartor, has a severe allergy to debt, even sensible debt.

That leads to Platner’s open space shopping sprees to overlap with the current, unresolved fight over the $3 million oopsie where someone somewhere in town government misplaced $3 million in unassigned surplus funds.

The CCA is adamant that we do not need an outside forensic audit to determine why we can’t seem to manage our budget. Personally, I think the CCA should welcome a forensic audit because, given their smug and irresponsible behavior, they may find themselves having to deal with a grand jury.