The Charlestown Moraine Preserve, a Needed Pause

Guest Post by Cheryl Dowdell (guest posts are moderated, but not approved or endorsed by the CCA Steering Committee)
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A beautiful piece of property  has recently been purchased by Charlestown and has been named The Charlestown Moraine Preserve. The remaining Open Space/ Recreation Bond was used to complete the $2.1 Million purchase. This transaction took 70 plus acres out of private development, permanently, and put that acreage in our hands, the taxpayers of Charlestown. To seal the deal, 2 buildable lots with magnificent panoramic ocean views were split off from the town’s open space purchase. A core group of perhaps 300 people in town, many who abut the property, followed this issue closely, attended meetings and communicated opinions with their Town Councilors. Much treasure in addition to the purchase price was spent for legal counsel, including an additional $50,000 for a special counsel.

While talking about this with many people living in other areas in town not near the new Moraine Preserve, I am concerned about how little so many of the other 7,000 plus taxpayers know about the purchase, how quickly it came about,  how it was funded and that two private lots were part of the deal. Although it was in the headlines of local newspapers and town discussions and votes legally posted, most taxpayers unfortunately don’t subscribe to local papers, are busy working and caring for their families and don’t always stay up on town news. There is an understandable lag of clear and correct information making its way to taxpayers.

Now a new, extremely important issue has quickly surfaced regarding this same permanently designated open space property. There has been quite a bit of discussion by the Town Council about transferring control of this newly purchased property though a “Conservation Easement”  to other organizations and conservancies, most which are not Charlestown organizations. In the February 17th, 2014 Westerly Sun, our Town Solicitor Peter Ruggerio was quoted, indicating that “ownership of the land is the same as the easement holder and the law doesn’t recognize any distinction”. Does this mean that these conservancies and organizations would, in effect, own the property also? Will they have any “skin in the game”? Can we expect realistic and fair compensation for these easements?

Do we, as the community who has just paid over $2M,  really want this kind of arrangement? I don’t know and probably neither do most taxpayers.

The Town Council has asked the Charlestown Conservation Commission to propose a plan and recommendation regarding this. Their report will most likely be discussed at the March 10th Town Council Meeting.

What is the rush with making  additional decisions regarding the Moraine Preserve right now, when the reality of the purchase is just now starting to sink in with the majority of our taxpayers and citizens?

I understand that members of the current Town Council are fearful that future town councils may develop this property, but these fears are unfounded. The use of the property in our hands is clear and concise. It is for open space and recreating, just as the bond money used to purchase it calls for. Nothing can be done to the property without our elected officials’ and taxpayers’ involvement.

I am hopeful that the Town Council and Town Officials will take a deep breath and reach out to the community in a slower, methodical way to get this property purchase information out and discuss with the community what the options are. I’ll bet most people in town don’t even know exactly where this property is.

Elections are coming up this Fall and it would be unfortunate to rush any discussions about who controls the Moraine Preserve before our community is enlightened. I am confident that future town councils, which could include all or some of the current membership, will have the same sense of place and preservation. Additionally, at this point we do not need any other outside organization involved in this brand new piece of open space until we all have recognized and digested its implications.

We, as a caring community, need to take a refreshing pause and mull over what we want to do with this forever property. The ink isn’t dry on the deed yet, so let’s  take some time to figure that out. This should be vetted with separate workshops, forums and presentations to the community by those groups who want an easement.

It would be great if taxpayers who are able, come to the March 10th Town Council Meeting and voice your opinion on this very important issue. If it is not on the agenda, we can all speak about the issue during the “public comment” portion of the agenda. The Town Council can’t read minds and we have to show up to let them know what we think!