Your Comments on Converting protected Open Space to a Housing Development

We want to hear from all of you – below are e-mail list members concerns and questions on this issue. Keep the comments coming! Click on this link to send us more comments

_______________________________________________________________________

I have to reply to a letter published in your e-mail updates under “YMCA Land”. I’m baffled by the writer’s ideas and definitions – “a not very useful open space in a not very safe neighborhood” “has never been open to the public” ? The zoning designation of Open Space doesn’t mean that there is a garden path leading to the area from a parking lot. In fact Open Space could be used as a wildlife sanctuary with very limited or no access and would serve a very useful purpose to the community and environment! Building houses on this parcel surely will increase the town’s tax revenues but will also increase town expenditures resulting almost certainly in a negative revenue stream so from the town’s perspective Open Space is a very good deal. Furthermore, the vast majority of land around Watchaug Pond is currently open to the public and I haven’t heard reports of the wild vandalism and crime sprees that some writers are predicting could occur! A “not very safe neighborhood”!! – what does that mean?
_______________________________________________________________________

YMCA Not all space that is called Open Space is really open. The YMCA property was designated Open Space because it was being used as a camp when the map was made. It is surrounded by a chain link fence and has never been open to the public. To leave it designated Open Space when the YMCA sells it would create a not very useful open space in a not very safe neighborhood. The Comprehensive Plan recognized that there were some designations that should be changed. This is one of them because camping and hiking can’t be permitted on the property with adequate buffer to protect the surrounding neighborhood. _______________________________________________________________________

If I understand this right, they are talking about changing the comprehensive plan of Charlestown so one property owner, the YMCA, can sell this land for a higher price to a developer to put houses on it when the YMCA asked for it to be zoned Open space and it has been open space for decades. This is absurd. If Open space isn’t for perpetuity then there is no legal guarantee for conservation easements, land trusts or any other land in this town isn’t just open for developers with a decision by the town council. Why is this even being considered? The YMCA should be told no. You want to sell the land fine but with the restrictions that have applied when the plan came into effect. Open space is the best deal for Charlestown. No extra school cost or town services needed which will be needed if more homes are built on it and this without considering the loss of recreational opportunities for kids and more pollution of the pond from more houses.
_______________________________________________________________________
everyone seems concerned about the pollution and the answer might be to rezone it residential …… but there is the pollution effect on the pond that would certainly happen from any houses built……. fertilizers…septic…etc…….don’t know what the answer is except to leave it open space with no events allowed to on this beautiful property.
_______________________________________________________________________
Anyone interested in the Watchaug Pond issue should read the minutes of the Planning Commission meetings of December 15, 2010 and January 19, 2011 that are accessible through the Town of Charlestown website, which provides a link to Clerkbase. The minutes contain some key information:

  1. Although Mr. Veazey, the person who is seeking to buy the property, wants an expedited decision, he has no specific plans for the property other than apparently to sell off various lots to builders for 9, 10, or 11 lots. What is striking is the total absence of any specific plans for this valuable piece of property. As of that point in the process – which was after he submitted his sparsely worded proposal for rezoning – he had not done an analysis as to what was financially possible or viable on the site, according to the minutes There is no indication from the minutes that Mr. Veazey, while he may be a very fine person, has any track record as a real estate developer, or indeed any experience at all in developing real estate , let alone a parcel as large as 27 acres. According to the minutes, even though he was looking for expedited action on the rezoning, he didn’t even have a concrete plan of how many lots for the site, what types of homes, etc., etc. There were no builders identified, no design plans, no lot designs, no landscaping designs, no specifics of any kind about plans for preserving the landscape or beauty of the area. Nothing. He was specifically asked in the December 2010 meeting if he had design plans. He said he didn’t. There is absolutely nothing of any substance that he submitted to the Planning Commission in December and January when he appeared before the Planning Commission that would allow anyone to make a reasoned decision about whether the changing of the Town’s zoning map as he requests is warranted. Mr. Veazey appears to be a person who purchased a second home in the neighborhood in 2005 (his principal residence is apparently in East Greenwich) and has decided to try his hand at real estate investment. There is nothing wrong with an individual making money in real estate, but before Charlestown acts so quickly to wipe out 27 ½ acres of prime waterfront open space/recreational land on the zoning map, it should certainly move more cautiously. What makes Mr. Veazey such a prime candidate for the very important responsibility of handling the disposition of such an important piece of natural property in the town of Charlestown? What credentials does he have in the area of development? In the minutes of December 15, 2010, he was asked specifically whether he had experience in conservation design. He admitted he didn’t.. According to the January minutes, Mr. Veazey told the Planning Commission he had purchased a book on the subject, but the mere purchase of a book on the topic is not reassuring when one considers the ramifications of a major rezoning change of the type he is proposing.
  2. The YMCA does not want a summer camp of any type on the property, and is refusing to consider selling the property to any non-profit for a summer camp In other words, the YMCA is creating a barrier to continue use of the property as a summer camp – the use it has had for decades consistent with the open space/recreational zoning designation. According to the January minutes, the YMCA is taking the position that whatever goes into the location is “not to compete with a day camp scenario “. The YMCA’s desire not to have a day camp on the property shouldn’t pressure the Town into making a hasty decision that will have serious long-term ramifications for open space in Charlestown. The YMCA of Westerly is a fine organization, but it has its own interests and objectives that are not necessarily identical to the interest of the residents of the Town of Charlestown.
  3. Timing and need for study. What is also clear from the minutes is that this proposal for wholesale rezoning of the 27 ½ acres raises more questions than it answers. The fast movement of this proposal has not left enough time to explore other alternatives to the vague proposal of Mr. Veazey. It is clear from the minutes that no one with any expertise on working with natural areas or developing precious natural areas was consulted by the Planning Commission by that time, even though the proposal was moving quickly. Even today, based on the meeting minutes available online, there is no indication that the Planning Commission or the Town Council has explored in any meaningful way the possibility of the Town of Charlestown purchasing the property and leasing it to a responsible and recognized group, for light recreation, such as a bird or nature sanctuary comparable to the nearby Kimball Sanctuary, or working to find a group or coalition of groups to acquire the site. Similarly, there is no indication that the Planning Commission has made any effort to determine whether some other person – a person with a track record of working with precious natural areas – has any specific ideas for how to deal with the site if it rezoned, and what restrictions to put on any rezoning if that route is taken.

The zoning map on the wall at Town Hall, with its various designations, took a long time to develop. It should not so easily be undone. There is simply no justification for voting to rezone this large waterfront parcel without giving this issue far more thought and deliberation.
_______________________________________________________________________

as far as the land at the ymca owns as open space, i truly feel that the 27 acres should be held as it is. we do not need the beautiful pond congested, polluted and developed, we have plenty of homes available in charlestown and already have free access to the beach and a boat ramp. if we keep changing the comprehensive plan every time someone wants a change in their favor, we won’t be able to stop anything from being built or developed in charlestown. people move to charlestown because there is open space, natural beaches, wildlife and fresh air. if we keep building it up and changing it for new residents, why would the rest of us want to stay? we like it the way it is. i sincerely hope that the new town council will work together serving the best interests of our town and it’s residents and move forward.
_______________________________________________________________________
Duh…when is protected open space not protected open space? Answer: whenever money is involved.
_______________________________________________________________________

I am concerned that it will be a virtual fait accompli by March because of this fast track that it appears to be on. In other words, the March hearing could be just a formality, rather than truly having the abutters and those within 200 feet part of the meaningful deliberation over this major policy decision. I urge you to bring this issue to the attention of your readership in a more substantive way than was done as part of the description on the Town Council agenda. In my opinion, this is a major conservation issue, and is deserving of the attention that you give other items. The fact that two governmental bodies in town are moving so fast to convert such a major piece of waterfront open space into a development site is certainly worthy of citizen attention! Thank you, and keep up the good work. It’s invaluable.
_______________________________________________________________________
I have confirmed with an abutter that abutters have not been notified
_______________________________________________________________________
After seeing your notice about the Town Council meeting tonight, I am alarmed about the speed with which a proposal to re-zone a large parcel of open space—27 ½ acres — on Watchaug Pond appears to be sailing through Charlestown’s governmental process – without, as far as I know, any notice to abutters or to anyone within 200 feet of the property. So far, according to minutes available on the Charlestown Town website, the Planning Commission has had a site visit and a hearing, and now the Town Council is having a hearing, and – as far as I am aware – no notice has been given to the abutters and to property owners within 200 feet of the property. In other words, the Planning Commission and now the Town Council is apparently moving forward very rapidly only hearing from those with a vested interest in having the property sold: the developer who wants to rezone the property and the YMCA which wants some cash. According to the MLS listing for the property, it is 27 ½ acres and has 700 feet of frontage on Watchaug Pond. According to the Town assessing records, the YMCA acquired the property from the Campfire Girls in 1985, but the price is unknown.
Questions:
1. Why is this happening so quickly, apparently without any input from abutters or those within 200 feet? (Under Section 218-13 of the Zoning Ordinance, if a specific change like this is being proposed to the zoning map, rather than a change that affects the zoning map generally, abutters and property owners within 200 feet are supposed to be notified. The theory is that they have an interest that should be heard while such a change is being deliberated. That’s not happening).
2. What is the rush? If this is rezoned, this open space will be lost forever. Why move so quickly on a decision that would be irrevocable?
3. What are the developer’s exact plans for the property? Would variances be needed for wells, septic systems, etc., to fulfill the developer’s plans?
4. What did the YMCA pay for the property back in 1985, and is there a way for Charlestown to acquire the property and preserve the open space? After all, there certainly does not appear to be a need for more moderate or upscale single family homes in Charlestown. A simple look at the number of homes for sale in Charlestown at nemoves.com shows that there are many moderate and upscale homes for sale.
this proposed rezoning raises an important public policy issue and only limited points of view have been sought or heard, apparently, and no effort as far as I know has been made to get a broader point of view. The proposed “joint meeting” is another effort apparently to speed things along, and I am mystified as to what the rush is.
By the way, keep up the good work!
_______________________________________________________________________
Response to us from land owner was: As an abutter, we have known since November that this was in the “works” On one side of the camp there are nine abutters, four of which are summer residents. The price in 1985 was $45K – so what? What do you think the due process is that has not been adhered to? Kwiturbit.. and do your homework. My turn to speak will come!
_______________________________________________________________________
I am an abutter to the YMCA property and only found out about the plans for the YMCA property 2 weeks ago from an article in the Westerly Sun. Who is the “we” that the abutter refers to in the posted comment and how did this abutter learn about the plans that were in the “works”?
_______________________________________________________________________
I am writing to express support for rezoning the property the YMCA is selling on Watchaug Pond and to compliment the Town Council and Planning Commission on the process they have used to review the application. The YMCA is selling this property because they recently improved and renovated their other camp nearby and have found that they are better able to serve the town with a single camp. The YMCA also found that the traffic associated with use of the camp they are selling was disruptive to the surrounding neighbors until they discontinued its use three years ago.
The Town Council and the Planning Commission take very seriously their responsibility to make decisions in accordance with proper scheduling and procedure, with adequate time to study the issues, and in support of the broad interests of the citizens of Charlestown. The Town Council first heard the request to rezone the property as residential R-2A at an open meeting in December. Since then, the Planning Commission has discussed the application in three meetings — all open to the public. The Planning Commission will discuss the application again on February 23rd. Two meetings have been scheduled specifically to hear from the public about the application — one on March 9 for public comment on the change to the Comprehensive Plan and the other on March 14 for public comment on the change in Zoning. The notices of the meetings will be published in the Westerly Sun multiple times in the next three weeks and letters will be sent by certified mail advising all abutters of those meetings.
With regard to the application to change the zoning to residential, some of the opposition seems to originate in confusion about what “Open Space” means. Most of the land in Charlestown that is zoned Open Space is owned by the State of RI or by Charlestown and is, in fact, open to the public. More than three quarters of the land around Watchaug Pond falls in this category and is used, freely or at minimum charge, by the public for hiking, camping, picnics, and access to the Pond for swimming and boating. The land being sold by the YMCA is not open to the public. It is a privately owned camp. It has been privately owned and closed to the public for at least sixty years.
In addition, most of the land zoned “Open Space” is relatively undeveloped. The property being sold by the YMCA is neither open nor undeveloped. It has been developed as a camp with more than a dozen buildings, a commercial well, a paved road, and at least four septic systems. It is not part of our pristine heritage that must be preserved. It is not a natural resource that requires preservation by the Planning Commission and the Town Council. The natural resource related to this zoning application that must be protected and preserved is Watchaug Pond. R-2A zoning was created with the stated intent of protecting such resources. The Town’s description of residential R-2A zoning says: “This zoning district is intended primarily for areas of low density residential development. It is intended to protect areas of Town with sensitive environmental characteristics.”
I have talked to several other people who live in Charlestown, including some who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the YMCA property. Everyone I talked to expressed the feelings that it would be better to rezone the area residential than to retain the somewhat artificial “Open Space” designation. Many activities that are permitted in areas with the Open Space designation would disrupt the surrounding neighborhoods and threaten the Pond and wetlands. Most agricultural uses would pollute the pond. An extension of the Burlingame Campground would bring with it noise, traffic, and campfires. Public access to the property would increase the incidence of graffiti, theft, vandalism, and public disturbance, not just on the YMCA property, but in the surrounding neighborhoods.
The public has access to Burlingame State Park just 500 yards from the YMCA property, a five minute walk. At the State Park there are parking lots, fire pits, picnic tables and restroom facilities and attendants during summer months that help assure public safety. The Town has limited resources. The Charlestown citizens who shared their thoughts with me believe the Town should not use those resources to acquire this additional property, to buy an easement through it, or even to take on the additional expense of assuring public safety on the property and in the surrounding neighborhoods.
_______________________________________________________________________
I am an abutter to the YMCA property and found out about the plans to change the status of the YMCA owned property from the Westerly Sun two weeks ago. I am interested in how the abutter who submitted the comment learned about the plans in November.
_______________________________________________________________________
I have been attending town council, planning commission, and zoning board meetings on a fairly regular basis for about a year. I’m not sure if “fast tracking” is defined in statewide land use regulations, but it appears to be a method used to assist large scale land developers to meet financial deadlines imposed on them by the source of their proposals’ funding mechanisms.

Here in Charlestown, I first heard the term “fast tracking” applied to the Whalerock industrial wind turbine proposal about eighteen months ago. Most recently, it has been used to describe the status of a proposed single-family home development abutting the Watchaug Heights/Soniqupaug neighborhood on land being sold by the YMCA to a current resident of that neighborhood.

In the case of Whalerock, the previous town council’s use of “fast tracking” was to simply circumvent state-mandated input of the Planning Commission as outlined by the Enabling Zoning Act. Their decision is being challenged in court on the basis it violated state law.

In the case of the YMCA property, the current town council’s use of “fast tracking” was to direct the Planning Commission to schedule special work sessions and follow the state’s Enabling Zoning Act. Their decision is proceeding according to state law.

The Enabling Zoning Act requires municipalities to apply a town’s Comprehensive Plan to all land use decisions. No exceptions are permitted.

Councilors Avedesian and Frank are holdovers from the previous town council and continue to insist they were correct in their interpretation of “fast tracking.” Furthermore, they do not support the appropriate use of “fast tracking” suggested by newly-elected councilors DiBello, Gentz, and Slattery.

The pending sale of the YMCA property and the associated development proposal have been consistently reported by the Westerly Sun and officially recorded in the minutes of Town Council and Planning Commission meetings.
_______________________________________________________________________
As a former long term member of the Planning Commission I must take exception to some of the comments re joint meetings with the Council and rushing things. All meetings are public and properly advertised. Joint meetings are useful in that it gives the Council a chance to receive the benefits of the Commission’s multiple meetings on a topic before making “THEIR DECISION”. Over many years there have been cases where the Council has voted in opposition to Commission findings. By having these joint meetings it can be assured that the Council has heard and can question any areas where doubts exist. Please stop the paranoia and go to the meetings with the knowledge that the final decision is made by the Council.
_______________________________________________________________________