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Sunday, July 30, 2023

Should Charlestown go after more open space money?

Sure, but honestly and sensibly 

By Will Collette

Charlestown already has LOTS of open space
On Tuesday, DEM is opening a new application round for open space 50% matching grants of up to $400,000. A total of $3 million is available in this cycle.

During the long reign of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) over our town, these grants were highly prized by Planning Commissar Ruth Platner who saw them as an opportunity for sweetheart deals with CCA supporters plus a chance to advance her exclusionary zoning policy. 

Shudder to think that land might become available to house families with children or, worse, “people from Providence.”

Though Platner still holds her perch of power as Planning Commission chair and de facto CCA commander, the new Town Council majority, comprised of candidates who were endorsed by Charlestown Citizens United (CRU) doesn’t share her view of open space ├╝ber alles.

That’s not to say they don’t value open space. In fact, the Council voted on July 10 to pursue the acquisition of a property at the corner of South County Trail and New Biscuit City Road to provide added public access to the Pawcatuck River.

This property could well be the subject of an open space grant application provided the groundwork laid out at the Council meeting can be accomplished before the October 27 application deadline.

Even Ruth Platner should applaud this project since it’s very close to the land where she and her husband ex-Zoning Board member Cliff Vanover share a home.

I think there is broad consensus in Charlestown that open space is a good thing. I certainly feel that way, contrary to what the CCA might say. But there is no consensus for unlimited, blind pursuit by Ruth Platner or anyone else to buy more open space with taxpayer dollars. More than 60% of Charlestown land (see map, above left) is already protected so new acquisitions should be strategic and a good value.

For a prime example of how NOT to pursue an open space buy, look no further than “SPAgate,” a shady deal if ever there was one. Platner directed her minion, town planner Jane Weidman to submit a grant application for open space cash to buy an unwanted property from CCA client group, the Sachem Passage Association, using a grossly overpriced appraisal.

Fortunately, after it initially awarded the grant, DEM insisted an independent appraisal be conducted. That appraisal came in at a fraction of what the SPA wanted – and what Platner was willing to pay – and the deal died.

If the Council decides to pursue an application, I am confident they will not repeat the CCA’s past practices of using public open space money as a political tool.

I have pulled extracts from DEM’s news release on the grant program containing the application details:

$3 million in matching grants are available to help communities and local organizations protect valuable open space throughout Rhode Island through DEM’s Local Open Space Grant Program. The grant round officially opens Aug 1, 2023, with a submission deadline of Oct 27, 2023. Funding is leveraged through the Rhode Island voter-approved 2022 and 2018 Green Bonds.

As part of this grant round, awards up to $400,000 – which may cover up to half of the project cost – will help preserve lands that offer significant natural, ecological or agricultural value by direct purchase or conservation easement. Projects that connect or expand existing protected lands will be prioritized. And climate change-related impacts of a project will be considered. In addition to these grants, funding is available to cover some costs associated with appraisal, title, and survey services. Restrictions apply, and applicants are encouraged to review the grant guidelines available at www.dem.ri.gov.

Electronic applications are encouraged and should be forwarded to the DEM’s Division of Planning & Development at dem.projects@dem.ri.gov by 4 PM on Friday, Oct 27. Proposals and supporting materials may also be mailed to the attention of DEM, Division of Planning & Development, 235 Promenade Street, Providence, RI 02908. Municipalities, land trusts, and nonprofit land conservation organizations are eligible to apply. Applications will be reviewed and ranked by the Natural Heritage Preservation Advisory Committee, with final awards to be made by the State Natural Heritage Preservation Commission.

Places used by residents and tourists alike for outdoor recreation, including iconic properties such as Weetamoo Woods and Pardon Gray in Tiverton, Mount Hope Farm in Bristol, Third Beach in Middletown, and Mercy Woods in Cumberland, all have been protected through this program. These natural assets play a big role in the state’s tourism economy by providing opportunities for the public to camp, fish, hunt, hike, and enjoy the great outdoors – all while generating revenue for the local economy.

DEM’s Green Space programs – which include Local Open Space, Outdoor Recreation, and Recreational Trail grants – fund land conservation, recreational land acquisition and development, and recreational trail development and improvement statewide.

The Local Open Space Grant Program is administered by the state’s Natural Heritage Preservation Commission and provides funding assistance to local communities for the protection of important open space and public recreation lands. Nearly every town in the state has received funding through the program over the course of the 200 grants administered since 1990, furthering the mission of preserving Rhode Island’s precious resources and increasing the public’s access and enjoyment of our natural lands.