Conservation Easement on Charlestown Moraine Preserve to go to Voters
At the February 9 meeting, the Town Council voted to put a conservation easement on the Charlestown Moraine Preserve before the voters at the June financial town referendum.
The property was purchased in 2013 using open space funds previously approved by the voters. The Conservation Commission developed a Management Plan for the property and with the help of the Nature Conservancy has been developing hiking trails on the property. The Management Plan does not however bind future Town Councils and the use of the land could change. The land could be sold and the money put back in the open space fund, or it could be developed for anything that could be defined as recreation. A past Town Councilor suggested that a casino might be considered a recreational use. Town’s people could take a Town Council to court if they developed the land for housing or similar uses, but a conservation easement would avoid all those possibilities.
Conservation easements are one of the most powerful and effective tools available for the permanent conservation of land. A conservation easement is a voluntary, legally binding agreement that limits certain types of uses or prevents development from taking place on a piece of property now and in the future, while protecting the property’s ecological, recreational, or open-space values. A conservation easement is legally binding, whether the property is sold or transferred to others.
Charlestown’s other open space properties are protected with easements. South Farm on Old Coach Road is protected with an easement from DEM as is School House Pond. The Nature Conservancy has a conservation easement on the Richard’s Trails land and the National Park Service has development oversight at Ninigret Park.
In 2006, some members of the Charlestown Affordable Housing Commission suggested using part of the South Farm open space property for affordable housing. The property had been purchased with town open space funds and a grant from DEM. The conservation easement held by DEM protected the land from that proposal. The easement originally restricted the land to hiking and limited agricultural use and did not allow any buildings. When the Conservation Commission proposed to rebuild the historic sheep barn on the property, DEM allowed the Management Plan to be changed as the proposal was consistent with the intent of the purchase to preserve the natural and agricultural history of Charlestown. So conservation easements can be flexible, but both the Town and the conservation organization must agree that any changes are consistent with the intent of the Management Plan.
Town’s people struggled for over 10 years to counter development proposals on the nearly 80 acres that make up the Charlestown Moraine Preserve. In 2013 the town spent $2 million in open space funds to preserve the land. The land will not be permanently preserved for the public’s use as open space however until a conservation easement is applied.
To learn more about the Charlestown Moraine Preserve, check out our post on this topic from 2013
The resolution passed by the Town Council on February 9 follows.
A RESOLUTION RELATIVE TO TRANSFERRING A CONSERVATION RESTRICTION TO THE RI DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT AND/OR THE CHARLESTOWN LAND TRUST
WHEREAS, the Town of Charlestown (the “Town”) owns in fee simple that certain parcel of land with all improvements thereon known as Assessors Map 17, Lot 186, commonly referred to as the Charlestown Moraine Preserve (the “Preserve”); and
WHEREAS, the Charlestown Conservation Commission prepared a Management Plan for the conservation and preservation of the Preserve dated October 23, 2013; and
WHEREAS, the Management Plan identified that a conservation restriction might be a useful mechanism to ensure the perpetual preservation of the Preserve; and
WHEREAS, since the Town owns the Preserve in fee simple without any encumbrances, the Preserve could be sold, developed and/or altered resulting in the loss of the environmental, aesthetic and buffer values associated with the Preserve; and
WHEREAS, the Town Council desires to place a question before the Town’s electors at the Financial Town Referendum pursuant to the relevant provisions of Sections C-14 and C-88 of the Town Charter as to whether the Town should transfer a conservation restriction in the Preserve to the RI Department of Environmental Management and/or the Charlestown Land Trust
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that we, the Town Council of the Town of Charlestown, Rhode Island, hereby authorize the Town Council President and the Town Administrator to work in conjunction with the Town Solicitor to undertake the following actions in furtherance of this resolution:
1. Contact the RI Department of Environmental Management and the Charlestown Land Trust to determine whether they are willing to accept a conservation restriction in the Preserve.
2. Draft a conservation restriction document setting forth all the terms and conditions, obligations and benefits regarding the parties to that agreement and return the final draft version of that agreement to the Town Council for final approval.
3. Take any and all steps necessary to schedule this question on the ballot for the Financial Town Referendum.
4. Take any and all other steps necessary in furtherance of the objectives and policies set forth in this resolution.
The RESOLUTION shall take effect on February 9, 2015.