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Hearing will consider Charlestown land purchase

CHARLESTOWN — The fate of the controversial Whalerock wind turbine project could be decided Thursday, when the Town Council holds a public hearing that will conclude with a vote on whether it should buy the property and preserve it as open space.

Council members voted to go ahead with the purchase at a special meeting on July 25. The negotiated price for the 78-acre parcel, bordered by King’s Factory Road and East Quail Run, is $2.1 million. The money would come from open space bond funds, so a referendum on the purchase would not be necessary. Four additional acres of the parcel would be set aside for the construction of two single family homes.

The current owner of the property is James Barrows, owner of the Brooklyn, Conn., entity, N.I.N. LLC. The previous owner, developer Larry LeBlanc, has been attempting to build two 410-foot wind turbines there, and he holds an option to lease back the land if the turbines are approved.

In addition to state and federal approvals, LeBlanc had to obtain a special use permit from the town zoning board. Opposition to the turbine project from residents and the Town Council has been intense. After three zoning hearings that began in May and were well-attended by project opponents, the process is now on hold as the town considers buying the land.

LeBlanc had originally sought to build an affordable housing project on the property. When that proposal was rejected, LeBlanc, through his company, Whalerock Renewable Energy LLC, presented the wind turbine proposal in 2010. The Town Council at the time supported the project, but the council’s leadership changed after the 2010 election, and LeBlanc and the new council have been wrangling over the project ever since.

LeBlanc scored an important victory in April, when state Superior Court Associate Justice Kristin Rodgers upheld the argument of Whalerock attorney Nicholas Gorham that the Charlestown Planning Commission could act only in an advisory capacity on LeBlanc’s petition.

At the Thursday hearing, in addition to inviting comments from the public, the council will consider advisory opinions from the Planning Commission, the Conservation Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission.

A detailed and lengthy opinion from the Planning Commission describes the property as “the largest unprotected and undeveloped piece of the Charlestown moraine remaining today.” The Charlestown moraine, a geologic feature, has a unique ecosystem, according to the commission.

The commission’s written opinion advises the town to proceed with negotiations to buy the property, but not at any price. It also suggests that the town consider an eventual deal with another organization. “It was the consensus of the commission members at the meeting that Charlestown should negotiate with the landowner concerning a price within reason,” the opinion reads. “The commission was clear that this doesn’t mean paying any price, but instead urging the Town Council and the landowner to keep an open mind and continue to explore the opportunity. Charlestown has been a partner in conservation of properties owned by USFWS [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] and the Nature Conservancy, so Charlestown does not need to be the ultimate owner. All possibilities should be explored.”

The opinion submitted by the Conservation Commission also favors the purchase of the property. The Parks and Recreation Commission opinion raises several concerns, including whether the purchase would affect taxpayers and where additional funding for recreation on the land would come from. It urges the town to submit the purchase proposal to the public for a vote.

Town Council President Thomas Gentz said he was thrilled that the town was planning to buy the property.

“To me, that property is Charlestown,” he said. “It embodies the rural character and the value conservation has to protect the ponds and the aquifer.”

A new $1.875 million appraisal of the land was received last week, but no closing date has been set.

The public hearing will take place at the Charlestown Elementary School at 7 p.m.

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