Spending prevails at Financial Town Meeting

Fri, 05/07/2021 - 8:45am

“Now the hard part starts. You’ve got 30 days.” That was the advice of Assistant Town Moderator Doug Michel after the vote was counted on whether the town should contribute $4.5 million to the $10.5 million acquisition of a portion of the Overlook property on the Great Salt Pond, between Champlin’s Marina and the Salt Pond Settlement.
The bonding for the purchase was approved at the annual Financial Town Meeting on Monday, May 3. by a vote of 115 to 81, after more than an hour of discussion, comments, and questions from the public and a call for the vote to be taken by paper ballot – a motion introduced by Jessica Willi and approved by at least 20 percent of those present and voting, as is necessary for that type of a motion to pass.
The 30 days refers to some contingencies – an appraisal must be completed and be “acceptable to the Town Council,” although what specific parameters would make it unacceptable have not been spelled out. The property must also be approved for a subdivision by the Planning Board. That matter is scheduled to be on the Planning Board’s agenda for May 12.
If the deal goes through, the land would be town-owned but have a conservation easement over it. The town would have control over approximately 1.75 acres of a total of about 4.5 acres. The Block Island Land Trust is contributing $4 million towards the purchase price, and the Block Island Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy have agreed to contribute $2 million.
As explained by Town Manager Maryanne Crawford, the purchase is meant for harbors infrastructure, which could include an office, welcome center, showers, bathrooms, and housing for two to three harbors employees on the second floor. There would also be docks, a boat ramp, and areas for launching small recreational vessels such as kayaks and paddle-boards.

Objections were largely in the areas of the financial impact to taxpayers and a lack of planning and due diligence. Ball O’Brien Park was raised as an example of a large purchase, made to house a harbors facility that never materialized.
Renwick “Pete” Tweedy said that there were a lot of unknowns that would impact the budget of the town beyond just the debt service on the purchase, as there would be added maintenance costs of any new facilities, and there was not, as of yet, any proposal for revenues to be made to offset costs.
Several people raised concerns about the financial impact on those living on fixed incomes, especially in light of other projects that need to get done and will have a more direct impact on the lives of people who live on the island year-round.
The property is felt to be, by proponents, “the last” available commercial property on the Great Salt Pond and is next to type 3 waters, which the R.I Coastal Resources Management Council deems appropriate for high intensity boating activities, including piers and marinas. George Davis said that the majority of the shoreline of the Great Salt Pond is type 1 (recreational) use. “That’s what makes this type 3 acquisition so attractive,” he said. 

Although some felt the price was too high, they pointed out that that was also the case in some past acquisitions. “We bit the bullet and often did those acquisitions, anyway,” said Keith Lewis.
Dorrie Napoleone, president of the Block Island Conservancy, said the acquisition would protect the pond by preventing development that would contribute to water quality issues caused by run-off, especially lawn chemicals.
Ken Lacoste said that although no one was against the conservation groups, it was a “can of worms… I’m not sure how you can have all those activities and maintain what the conservancies want to achieve.”
More than one person in favor of the purchase spoke about making a “legacy purchase,” including Sam Bird, who said: “These issues come up rarely, and they rarely come up perfectly.”

Kristen Baumann said: “All this legacy talk is nagging at me. What is legacy? Leaving our seniors out in the cold?” She asked the Town Council, and others at the front table
to look at “the wall behind you,” which was stained from dripping water and the paint was cracked and peeling. “Is that our legacy?”
Besides lack of funds for basic maintenance, she wasn’t the only one who pointed out that the town had refused a mere $8,000 budget increase for senior services, and that there were many competing needs. Jim Hinthorn said his first thought was “this is a no-brainer. But as I thought about it a little more, I’m not sure. If the conservancies want to buy it, that would be fine.”
Before the actual vote was taken, each member of the Town Council got up to speak, starting with Councilor Martha Ball, who was against the purchase, favoring the opening
of dialogues with the business community to form public-private partnerships. She said that a vote against this wasn’t a vote against conservation, rather that the town has a lot of projects currently going on, the financial impact of which hasn’t yet been felt. As for the sudden timing, she said: “The town is getting side-swiped by this.”
First Warden Andre Boudreau was also against it, citing not only the suddenness of the matter, but of the many other needs of the town that would have a greater, positive impact on the lives of residents.
Councilors Keith Stover and Mark Emmanuelle, along with Second Warden Sven Risom, echoed their remarks from the week before at a public information meeting, and were in favor of the acquisition.
Risom, acknowledging the objections, said: “We all agree, planning is critical. But sometimes we have to react.”
The remainder of the meeting went smoothly, with few comments and questions from the public. All of the items on the “Warning” were approved, including $1.3 million in bonds for
a new ladder truck for the fire department, and $2 million in bonds to fund “operational expenses of the Block Island Housing Board.”
There were no changes to the $16,560,130 budget recommended by the town manager. The new budget goes into effect July 1, the beginning of the town’s next fiscal year.