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Sunday, October 30, 2022

Charlestown Mad Math

When your ideas stink, back them up with some phony numbers

By Will Collette 

You can't have too much open space
This article original ran on October 3. As we get to the final stretch, you should look closely at the CCA's actual track record before you mark your ballots.

Charlestown’s Planning Commissar Ruth Platner is once again throwing together strings of numbers to try to support her obsession with buying more land as open space. Whether we need it or not. Whether the price is fair or not. Even though more than half of Charlestown is already open space. 

Regular Progressive Charlestown readers may remember Ruth’s first, classic foray into phony math when she concocted a mathematical formula “proving” that families with school-age children are parasites and thus Charlestown must not, under any circumstances, build more affordable housing. Never mind that kids who grew up in Charlestown can’t afford to live here. 

CCA Town Council member Cody Clarkin is a prime example, refusing to give up his seat by claiming he is still living with his parents and not in the Westerly house he and his roomie leased in July. Clark, a former Eagle Scout, admitted he couldn’t find an affordable home in Charlestown. 

Anyway, Ruthie pushed a concocted mathematical formula that she claimed showed how educating children only costs taxpayers – particularly absentee owners – lots in taxes and returns no value. 

Thus, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance’s priority was to block new housing, even traveling to Providence to ask the state for an exemption from state law due to our special “rural character,” meaning a shrinking population, reduced number of children and no room for “people from Providence.” 

At first, Ruth promoted this bogus math on the CCA website. Then after lots of pushback, she buried it deep in the website, but you could still find it if you knew where to look. But then, she made it disappear altogether. Did I mention that Ruthie runs the CCA’s website? She also runs the CCA’s new Illegal political action committee designed to promote open space politics without the bother of accountability for filing campaign finance reports. 

More Mad Math

Ruth is now pushing another far-fetched mathematical theory that, in a nutshell, says that the more land we take off the tax rolls by buying it as open space, the more our tax base will grow. That’s because land values go up when they’re near open space. 

When Ruth and her husband Cliff Vanover made this claim in the past, I (and others) have demanded evidence which neither Ruth nor Cliff provided. 

This time, she cites as her evidence a study done by the Southern New England Forest Consortium, a Chepachet-based forest group, that concluded that forests are good. 

But there’s a small problem with her “proof.” The Southern New England Forest Consortium dissolved in June 2009. Platner claims “Other studies have had similar findings” but where are they? 

You want "rural character? Here's your rural character.
Lagoon filled with hog waste. Bob Nichols, USDA

It’s reasonable to believe that if your house is next to a toxic-emitting industrial site, a freeway or a lagoon filled with liquid pig manure, it is worth less than if it was surrounded by woods or ocean. 

But except for some small pockets, nearly all of Charlestown residential properties are already surrounded by woods or water or both, as the town’s own official map shows. 

Even the densely packed shoreline neighborhoods have no trouble keeping up their values due to their proximity to the ocean and salt ponds, not to mention the millions their largely absentee owners pour into them despite the probability of sea level rise and increased and intensified storms resulting from the climate crisis. 

They're even selling t-shirts on Amazon
Here’s an important piece of background to Ruth’s obsession with expanding open space at any cost: she does not trust private owners to be proper stewards of their own land. 

She is part of the subset of conservationists who think people are the problem and that Gaea would be better off without them.

There’s even a “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement” that encourages people stop having kids to bring this “voluntary” extinction about. 

The current grievance being pushed by Platner and her minions is that two non-CCA councilors – Council President Deb Carney and Grace Klinger – blocked the purchase of a ~100 acre parcel dubbed the “Richard Property.” 

Carney and Klinger opposed paying for an appraisal until the town has a plan to manage all the open space it currently owns. 

There is no emergency to buy the land. The Richard family own that land and had it designated as open space to get a low tax rate under the Farm, Forest and Open Space program for 15 years. There is no sign they plan to drop the open space designation and even less evidence they plan to allow the land to be developed.  

The appraisal question never went to a vote.

This is what Platner and her acolytes are calling an anti-conservation position. Especially vehement was CCA Town Councilor Bonnita Van Slyke who is, ironically, trying to sell her Arnolda estate for $2.4 million to some oligarch who is invited to “build your own palatial coastal retreat” – right on water certain to rise due to climate change. 

Just about every land deal Ruth has spearheaded over the past 12 years since assuming supreme power over Charlestown land use policy has been tainted. 

Since 2011, nearly every land deal featured either doing a favor for a friend or courting political supporters for the CCA. The properties were invariably assessed at only a fraction of the selling price. Several involved blatantly phony appraisals where the price was based on non-existent and even impossible conditions. 

Half a dozen major deals later, Charlestown taxpayers have footed millions of dollars in bills to buy open space we don’t need. Plus, these deals helped the CCA in its relentless quest to maintain power even by literally buying votes. 

Lost Cars

The CCA can't be trusted with our money
And it doesn’t end there. Ruthie stuck her oars in during the troubling Charlestown “Three-million Dollar Oopsie.” For almost two years, Charlestown’s budget was inaccurate because unspent money had been moved to different parts of the budget. 

The Budget Commission never caught that until they were told by the town’s auditors (since resigned) that they had overspent by about three million dollars. For the first half of this year, all the responsible parties – Budget Commission, Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz, etc. - tried to point the blame away from themselves. 

In a strange attempt to rescue the Budget Commission’s honor, Platner tried to apply Ruth’s New Math to explain that losing track of $3 million was no big deal. According to her, it’s like parking your car in a different place. The money wasn’t “lost” per se. However it was forgotten for almost two years – that’s the “oopsie.” 

This “oopsie” and Platner’s shady land deals make many Charlestown voters leery of the CCA claim that they know how to manage the town’s money. 

Platner seems to think her push for more land purchases can somehow paper over these issues, but the CCA’s 12-year history of shady deals, lies and cronyism are the real issues Charlestown voters should address at the polls.

By the way, if you want to see for yourself how much of Charlestown is ALREADY open space, here's an official town map that was published just months ago in Ruth Platner's own town Comprehensive Plan.