Land Trust beefing up security on holiday weekends
For the second year in a row, the Land Trust had a problem with illegal and under-age drinking at the beach just south of Ballard’s Beach Resort on July 4. In order to get to the popular beach, one must either traverse Land Trust property where there is a beach access path, use the old abandoned path (“the cooler path”) at the Ocean View Pavilion, descend from Spring Street by the sewer outflow pipe or cross over from Ballard’s.
After last year’s party left a trashed beach, then Chief of Police Matt Moynihan asked the Land Trust if they could hire a security guard to patrol the area on weekends and holidays, perhaps inspecting and confiscating liquor in coolers and backpacks, which they did. (The Land Trust has the right to forbid people from having alcohol on its property.)
At the Land Trust’s meeting on July 14, Chair Barbara MacMullan said she got a call from the guard on July 4 asking if he could stay longer. She related that he had stopped about 200 to 300 people with alcohol, including about 20 minors. “He would like two people for the day” on holidays like the Fourth of July and Victory Day, she said.
Although there was also police presence and community service officers at the entrance to the Ocean View property up until the start of the parade, many people simply altered their routes and crossed the property to the beach via other points, particularly through the post office parking lot.
One observer told The Block Island Times that kids appeared to be reacting to a social media app telling them to go this way, or that way, to change their routes, with the crowds of kids looking at their phones and turning almost in unison, reacting like ants on a path to sugar.
Trustee Corrie Heinz said that all the beaches on the mainland have parking fees and that it is cheaper to buy ferry tickets to come to Block Island. “People know it’s a free-for-all,” she said.
“This conversation should have been at the Town Council meeting, not here,” said MacMullan.
The Land Trust approved a motion to hire a second security guard.
Clarifying its mission
“I put it on the agenda because there’s been a lot of discussion around affordable housing,” said MacMullan at the start of the meeting. “It” being the Land Trust’s mission.
The Land Trust collects a three-percent tax on real estate transfers, a tax that can amount to millions per year, or hardly anything at all, depending on the whims of the market. How the revenue may be used is controlled by enabling legislation passed by the Rhode Island General Assembly decades ago. Now some housing advocates want a portion of that money, even though Block Island has a Housing Board, also created with state enabling legislation with its own, albeit smaller revenue stream that consists of a one-percent tax on rentals of private homes on a transient basis. That revenue stream currently amounts to about $100,000 per year, whereas the Land Trust collected $168,796 just for June.
Housing advocates have also asked the town, and the Land Trust, to identify parcels they own that could possibly be used for housing.
Land Trust attorney Joe Priestley said he was asked, ahead of the meeting, to explain under what circumstances land owned by the Land Trust could be sold or transferred to the town for housing. He explained that first, the trustees must vote on the matter with a four-to-one approval. Then the transaction would go to a Financial Town Meeting where it must be passed by two-thirds of the voters.
Additionally, the parcel must have been deemed “No longer suitable for the purposes for which it was acquired,” said Priestley.
The agenda item drew the interest of a few members of the original Land Trust, Keith Lewis, Claire Costello, and Doug Michel, who all weighed in on the issue.
As far as diverting Land Trust revenues, current trustee Keith Lang said: “To make a change such as that, you would need to go back to the General Assembly.”
“Once you go to the General Assembly you’ve lost all control,” said Priestley. “The whole of the legislation is before them.”
Dorrie Napoleone, President of the Block Island Conservancy, asked if any other towns have transfer taxes dedicated to conservation.
There are only two in the state, Block Island and Little Compton, although Priestley and Lewis weren’t sure if Little Compton had the ability to incur debt to finance acquisitions, as Block Island does.
Costello said that opening up the Land Trust’s legislation could possibly “make it vulnerable to the real estate lobby.”
“It’s more likely you’d get a housing transfer tax for the Housing Board than for the Land Trust,” said Priestley.
It is possible to be active partners in both land conservation and affordable housing. Lewis was involved in one of the first affordable housing ventures on the island, single-family homes on Beacon Hill, and for convincing the Champlin Foundation to help fund it.
“We have a well-established history of working with housing when it fits our legislation,” said Costello.
“It’s important to remind the community of what the Block Island Land Trust does for the town,” said Lewis.
People started listing some of them – Mosquito Beach, Heinz Field, the Solviken, and the Hodge Preserve, among others. Conservation groups have also helped financially with affordable housing projects by taking a conservation easement on portions of land acquired for that purpose. Most recently the Land Trust assisted the town in acquiring Sam P. Meadow where it is hoped a boating facility complete with housing for town employees might be built.
“Conservation also had a role in tamping down development,” said MacMullan.
Trustee Harold “Turtle” Hatfield said the water and sewer companies wouldn’t “be able to handle it.”
“This is not just a Block Island problem,” said Costello. “There are housing problems everywhere.”