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Sunday, May 15, 2022

CCA throws an open space temper tantrum

Torrent of lies and personal attacks follow Platner not getting her way

By Will Collette

Let’s start with a riddle: Why would the town of Charlestown spend $800,000 (or more) in town and state taxpayers’ open space funding to buy a piece of property that is ALREADY classified as open space?

Do you have an answer yet? No? Well here it is.

It’s because Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) leader and town Planning Commissar Ruth Platner wants it. We’re talking about roughly 100 acres of land at Saw Mill Pond currently owned by Carl E. Richard. The land is assessed at $312,800 because it is already classified as open space and qualifies for special tax treatment under the Farm, Forest and Open Space program.

This property has been getting the open space tax break since at least 2010, paying annual property taxes of between $2,500 and $4,000 on the 100 acres. There are NO past, present or future development plans extant for this property.

So, back to the riddle. Why does Ruth Platner want Charlestown to buy this land? She’s made the usual arguments for the ecological wonders of the land – I don’t dispute those - but still, it’s ALREADY open space and has been for many years. Why spend ±$800,000 to remove 100 acres and an average of $3,000 in property taxes off the tax rolls?

It must be that Platner doesn’t consider land to be open space unless it’s owned by town or by one of her favored organizations, like the Charlestown Land Trust.

The CCA majority voted last October to seek DEM funding to buy this land even though they insisted the vote take place WITHOUT publicly disclosing where it is, who owns it and what it costs.

It took until March for us to find that out – CLICK HERE to read the details – after DEM announced it was awarding a grant of $400,000 for up to 50% of the cost. The town could spend more than 50% as it recently did on the Tucker Estate property. It all depends on how much the appraisal can be maniputlated.

Anyway, Platner’s peculiar desire to remove yet another property from the tax rolls was dealt a setback at the May 9 Town Council meeting. The Council was supposed to approve $4,750 for a DEM-mandated appraisal of the land that can justify spending ±$800,000 ($400,000 from DEM and ±$400,000 from the town) on property currently assessed at $312,800.

Platner’s past shady deals – SPA-Gate, Tucker Estates, Y-Gate, etc. – often featured appraisals based on imaginary circumstances such as the construction of an implausible number of housing units. No doubt, that’s the plan for the Richard’s land.

But surprise! Platner lost her usual unbeatable 3-2 CCA Council majority when, out of the blue, CCA Councilor and ex-Eagle Scout Cody Clarkin recused himself for ethical reasons. That meant Platner was stymied from getting her usual bogus appraisal because Council President Deb Carney and Councilor Grace Klinger would not go along thus creating a 2-2 deadlock.

Neither Carney nor Klinger bear the CCA stamp of approval. Both of them insisted that Charlestown needs to get a grip on its current open space holdings which are getting increasingly difficult to manage and maintain. 

Carney also questioned how much land has been taken off the tax rolls and introduced a map drawn up by town GIS Specialist Steve McCandless at the direction of Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz that shows how much land in Charlestown is taxed and how much is not. Here's what Stankiewicz gave her:

Platner and the CCA launched personal attacks against Carney and Klinger claiming the map was evidence of Carney’s perfidy. Hey, Ruth and your Greek chorus of acolytes – it’s a TOWN map. Deb asked Stankiewicz for a map showing taxed versus untaxed land, Stankiewicz told McCandless to do it and then Stankiewicz sent the map back to Carney, apparently without checking with Platner.

If Platner et al. have a complaint about the map, take it up with your boy Stankiewicz. And check out the map below which appears in Platner's Charlestown Comprehensive Plan. Look at how closely it matches up with the tax map above.

CCA Senior Town Councilor Bonnie Van Slyke weighed in by flashing a secret memo – a critique of the map – written by Platner's flunky Town Planner Jane Weidman to Stankiewicz and McCandless. It was cc’d to Platner and inexplicably given only to Van Slyke and not the other Council members.

Carney insisted that this memo be made public, especially since it was being discussed in open debate. Under Charlestown’s overly literal interpretation of the state open records law, the memo is not a public record because it was "sent" (cc'd) to an “elected official” (Platner).

Since Charlestown no longer honors open records requests from me, I suggest that you send a request for a copy of this memo to Town Clerk Amy Weinreich. You can use the town’s official form although state law allows you to do it with a simple e-mail to Amy. Ask for the May 9 memo on the non-taxable map.

Van Slyke and Platner advanced their dubious theory that buying private property for open space expands the tax base while developing private land diminishes the tax base and adds costs to the town. By that logic, Charlestown should outlaw private property, except I suppose, land owned by CCA supporters.

But it’s a silly “straw man” argument because what Carney and Klinger were proposing and Van Slyke and Platner were attacking is Charlestown taking a balanced and measured approach to open space acquisition and management, neither a ban and nor a continued buying orgy.

Here’s a list of what the town has already bought since the 2015 passage – by 11 votes – of a $2 million open space bond:

But Platner and Van Slyke insisted that the problem isn’t that Charlestown can’t manage all the open space it already owns but rather the failure of the Conservation Commission (and by extension, its long-time leader Councilor Grace Klinger) to secure DEM grants for trail management.

Platner pulled some historic “evidence” from her posterior claiming the Conservation Commission has always been responsible for finding funds for trails and they dropped the ball.

There is nothing in the Conservation Commission’s mission statement on the Town website that says they research and write grants. There is nothing remotely like that in the Town Charter description of their responsibilities. Noteworthy is that the Conservation Commission doesn’t have any staff.

By contrast, Platner has access to just about all the town staff, especially those in the Planning office, Building and Zoning, and GIS, plus she has Stankiewicz at her beck and call. It’s the Planning Commission that usually initiates DEM grant proposals.

In most small municipalities, it’s the responsibility of the Town Administrator (or manager) to watch for and pursue funding opportunities for the town. RFPs (Requests for proposals) come in all the time. With overall responsibility for all town departments, Stankiewicz is in the best position to direct the search for outside funding, not the unstaffed, all-volunteer Conservation Commission.

But under the CCA, it’s been the common practice to reduce Stankiewicz’s work load so he has more time to devote to advancing the CCA’s agenda through cover-ups and secrecy.

For now, Platner’s endeavor to buy the Richard’s land is in limbo unless they can convince Cody Clarkin to withdraw his recusal. However, the land remains unchanged under private ownership as a tax-advantaged open space property. 

Platner is painting this as an urgent matter, writing “The $400,000.00 DEM grant will be lost if the acquisition is not completed in the next year.” Frances Topping argues that “land once developed is lost forever from conservation protection.”

Maybe so, but so what? We don’t NEED to spend open space tax dollars to buy privately owned open space. There are no plans afoot to develop the property. And we have an election in November where we’ll see whether the CCA can add to or maybe lose some of its Council majority. Do I smell Platner panic?


During the arguing over the Richard’s property, Platner claimed the 2015 Open Space Bond's thin margin of support (11 votes) was due to a concerted campaign against it.

Council President Carney said there was no such campaign, though there was indeed a broad effort to block the CCA majority from giving away the Moraine Preserve to the Charlestown Land Trust. We had purchased that land for $2.1 million to block the Whalerock windfarm proposal and to benefit the CCA client group, the Sachem Passage Association. 

The Open Space bond was a separate, free-standing item.

Nu-uh, said Ruth. She said she remembered receiving a flyer in the mail attacking the open space bond and was pretty sure it came from the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee.

Well, that’s a lie and here’s the proof. This is a screenshot of the front and back of the card Charlestown Democrats sent to voters who responded by voting by large margins to reject the Whalerock giveaway and approve the $1 million recreation bond. Read it and you’ll see no mention of the Open Space Bond.

There was only one public dissent to the Open Space bond, and that was from me. In a Progressive Charlestown article on May 31, 2015, the day before the election, I wrote this:

Read the article for more discussion of this point. Then I added this closing to the section on why I personally was going to vote NO:

I stand by what I wrote in 2015 and believe Charlestown's record over the past seven years bears me out. 

Also, I seriously doubt that my remarks on the night before the election had anything to do with the Open Space bond's near defeat. I'm good at this stuff, but I'm not that good. 

There were also two additional misstatements made at the May 9 Council meeting that need correction since they pertain to our Town Budget – many, maybe all, of you – have received your mail-in ballot and can send it in at any time.

Both wrong statements were made by Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz. He reported to the Council that the Budget locks in the current tax rate (the tax per $1000 of assessment) at $8.22. That statement is wrong on two counts. 

First, the current rate is $8.18 not $8.22. Second, the final rate will be calculated by Tax Assessor Ken Swain based on the final calculations of key factors that make up the rate. This will happen before the bills are finalized, printed and mailed in early July. 

The second false statement by Stankiewicz is that Charlestown’s share of Chariho School system costs will be cut by $134,686 due to voter rejection of the second and final Chariho budget proposal. Council President Deb Carney later gave the correct figure, which is actually a reduction of $265,000 or nearly double what Stankiewicz claimed. Stankiewicz challenged Carney on this figure and she asserted this was the latest number. She confirmed that the following day.

Stankiewicz should know these numbers. It’s his job and he is well paid to do it correctly. Including the flap over the map he gave to Carney, that’s three unforced errors on important matters by Stankiewicz in just one segment of one Council meeting. This is the kind of sloppy management that contributed to the $3 million "oopsie" controversary that started last January.