Letter: Carney leaves out facts concerning Ninigret Park motions

This letter to the editor appeared in the Westerly Sun and is reprinted here with permission of the author

Any citizen or any political party officer such as Deborah Carney, who is the former council president and vice chairwomen of the Democratic Town Committee, is free to disagree with any motion made by any town councilor. But Ms. Carney’s letter (“Why Give Away Charlestown’s Rights in Ninigret Park,” April 21) leaves out some critical facts and the reasons that I proposed the motions before the Charlestown council. Ms. Carney’s letter is not an accurate or balanced account of my motions.

First, my three motions on Ninigret Park give nothing away. I think that it’s important to note that the town of Charlestown was given a tremendous gift by the federal government. In the land transfer agreement of 1979, the federal government transferred land to the town of Charlestown that later was renamed Ninigret Park. Ms. Carney fails to note that there was a legal obligation attached to that land transfer. By accepting the land transfer over 43 years ago, Charlestown agreed that any proposed changes to Ninigret Park must be consistent with the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge which is located next to land transferred to Charlestown.

Ms. Carney also fails to mention that in the legal agreement the federal government reserves the right to reclaim the land at will. The Charlestown solicitor has stated publicly that Charlestown not only has a legal obligation to the National Wildlife Refuge, but a moral and ethical obligation based on the land that was transferred (172 acres) and the 55 acres we own next to wildlife refuge.

As a town councilor who believes in making decisions that are thorough and factual, I have met with and spoken to the representative from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the US National Park Service. They have voiced on several occasions their disappointment on how they were being treated by Charlestown over the past two years. I have shared this information for the record at Town Council meetings (which Ms. Carney failed to mention in her letter) that Ninigret Park plans and decisions have been made without the knowledge or approval of these federal organizations. Those two federal organizations believe the town of Charlestown has created an adversarial environment and has failed to include them in the planning and decision process, which they believe is outlined in the law associated with the land transfer agreement.

Anyone who had had any type of management background realizes that you don’t want to create or foster an adversarial situation with clients or stakeholders. For that reason, I have made motions for creating two memos of understanding (MOU). The first would include a formal motion for endorsement by the Town Council to require that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. National Park Service be invited to participate in the planning process for changes in Ninigret Park. The second MOU would apply to allowing stakeholders such as the citizens who are abutters to Ninigret Park and the Frosty Drew Observatory to be invited to participate in the planning process. Both federal organizations have stated they do not want to pursue litigation against the town. But if Charlestown continues on its current path and continues to ignore these agencies and our legal obligations to see that park changes are consistent with the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge, then the federal government does have the option to litigate and take the land back if it so chooses.

By fostering a work environment that encourages inclusion instead of exclusion, I hope the town can reestablish sound working relationships with all stakeholders and collaborate on Ninigret Park improvements that serve both the town and National Wildlife Refuge.

On my motion to revisit the Ninigret Park Master Plan, Ms. Carney fails to mention that my motion is based on getting updated financial costs and prioritizing park improvements to assist the budget commission and town council in future capital improvement funding decisions. The Capital Improvement Plan is a 5-year document mandated by the state, and its base year is the current budget year and extends four additional years making it a 5-year plan. The current Ninigret Park Master Plan was designed when the financial climate for federal and state grants to support park improvements were possible. The current fiscal climate makes the ambitious vision of that 2008 plan not financially feasible to implement.

My proposed plan for accomplishing the goal of updated financial data has two parts. The first part would require the Parks and Recreation Commission to revisit the 2008 plan and consider the improvement priorities that they consider the most important and that have a reasonable chance of gaining funding support. The budget contains $15,000 as a transfer out from the general fund budget to assist with this effort if passed by the Town Council. The second part of my proposal would be to have the parks and recreation recommendations be reviewed by a stakeholders group before the final plan is forwarded to the town council for a public hearing and vote.

It’s obvious to me that if the town hopes to move forward with improvements to Ninigret Park they will need updated and accurate financial costs associated with these improvements. If the council rejects my motion for a new master plan, it should at a minimum consider an updated financial plan and prioritize future costs for the park. This information is needed to guide future financial planning and inform taxpayers of what future improvements will cost.

Daniel Slattery
The writer is vice president of the Charlestown Town Council.