Provide Permanent Protection to the Charlestown Moraine Preserve

The following letter appeared in local newspapers and is shared with us here by the author Ruth Platner

Yellow Warbler - Frances Topping
This Yellow Warbler’s home needs a conservation easement

Granting a conservation easement over undeveloped land is very much like hiring a security firm to protect your home. The security firm doesn’t live in your home, or stop your use, but they do keep others from harming your property.

Municipally owned conservation and recreation properties in Charlestown are protected by easements or similar arrangements. DEM or the Nature Conservancy hold easements on School House Pond Preserve, South Farm, and the Richard Trails property. The National Parks Service restricts the types of activities allowed at the town’s Ninigret Park.

The town council is now giving voters the opportunity to provide permanent protection to the Charlestown Moraine Preserve with an easement on June 1st at a town referendum.

How have easements worked to protect and allow use of Charlestown’s other conservation and recreation land?

In 2010, a previous Town Council proposed placing three 400-foot tall wind turbines in Ninigret Park on the border of the National Wildlife Refuge. The proposal was stopped by the National Park Service who wrote, “This project is not a recreational use for the property, and therefore is prohibited.” Without the National Park Service to enforce the Park’s restriction to conservation and recreation, Town Councils would be free to broadly interpret what “recreation” is. Perhaps a casino could be built in Ninigret as recreation. The National Park Service has allowed most uses that have been proposed in Ninigret. But when town council proposals have been outside of real recreation, the National Park Service oversight has been invaluable.

Photo by Frances Topping
Riding Horses at South Farm Preserve

DEM holds a conservation easement on the town’s South Farm Preserve on Old Coach Road. The original management plan and easement did not allow buildings on the land. After the easement was in place the Charlestown Conservation Commission requested that they be able to rebuild the sheep barn on that property. DEM revised the easement to allow the building because it was consistent with the purpose of preserving the land, which is to protect the natural resources and farming history of the parcel. In 2006 a town commission suggested using part of South Farm for housing, but DEM’s easement protects the land from housing developments.

In the 1990s the Town Council was not protecting the citizens’ right to access School House Pond Preserve, one of Charlestown’s most beautiful properties. Because DEM held an easement to the property, citizens were able to pressure the town to make sure the property was open to the public.

School House Pond Preserve
School House Pond Preserve

Many who argue against placing an easement on land will say that the use of Open Space/Recreation Bond funds for the purchase is enough to enforce the limitation of uses to conservation and recreation. But enforce by whom? Without a conservation easement, citizens would have to hire an attorney and take the town to court.

There is nothing wrong with future town councils proposing bond referenda for uses other than open space such as schools, housing, or other construction and using those funds to acquire land for those purposes. It is wrong to use the popular open space bonds to acquire land for projects that are not open space or recreation and that voters have rejected or won’t support. But past Town Councils have shown that the only thing that stops conversion of open space lands to other uses is a conservation easement held by an organization such as DEM, a land trust, or The Nature Conservancy.

I urge Charlestown voters to vote “YES” on both question 1 and 2 on the June 1st ballot to continue to acquire and protect open space in Charlestown.

Ruth Platner

Ruth is the current Chair of the Charlestown Planning Commission and has been involved in land use issues in Charlestown for over 20 years.