CHARLESTOWN — Supporters of the Charlestown Residents United political action committee gathered at Cross' Mills library Thursday to discuss proposed updates to the town’s comprehensive plan and the survey that the town intends to conduct to determine residents’ priorities.
Town Council Vice President Deborah Carney, the only CRU member on the council, reminded residents of the group's accomplishments. The most recent victory, she said, was the mobilization of residents against a plan by the council majority to include a $3.1 million surplus in the town budget for the construction of a community/recreation center.
Residents voted down the budget with the controversial line item and approved a revised budget that returned $1 million of the surplus to homeowners in the form of a property tax reduction. The council also allocated up to $75,000 for a professional survey to determine the needs of residents.
“For the first time, a large building plan was not put forward as a separate warrant item but instead it was put forward tucked into the budget,” Carney said. “If that budget had been approved, we would have had something built at Ninigret Park. We don’t know what, because there was no plan, and that’s why everybody got the word out and the whole town came out and said, ‘This is not the way we do business in Charlestown.’”
CRU has now set its sights on the current update of the state-mandated comprehensive plan, the document that guides all land use in the town. The existing plan was approved by the state in 2008 and expired in 2013.
With the comprehensive plan update now nearing completion, CRU is asking that the residents’ survey be conducted as soon as possible, before the plan is approved by the council.
“The town is opening up to $75,000 to do a townwide survey,” she said. “We feel before anything is done with this comprehensive plan rewrite, which is already six years expired … we need to wait until we get the results of the townwide survey.”
The survey itself is also a bone of contention for the CRU because, Carney said, it appears that rather than being sent to all residents, it will now be a sampling.
“I called the town administrator," she said. "I said, ‘What do you mean by sample? Do you mean that this is not going out to every Charlestown resident?’ He said ‘yes.’ I said, ‘That is not what we discussed at the council meeting.’”
The comprehensive plan update also revives a decades-old debate in the town over which recreational activities should be taking place at Ninigret Park.
The town owns 227 acres of the park. There are no deed restrictions on 55 acres of the town-owned section but the remaining 172 acres were conveyed to the town by the National Park Service to serve as a buffer for the adjacent federally managed wildlife refuge. Uses in that section are restricted to passive recreational activities, such as hiking and bird-watching, but those restrictions do not exist on the 55 acre parcel.
The CRU is concerned that all 227 acres will be described in the comprehensive plan as designated for passive recreation, preventing the addition of facilities such as ball fields.
“If this is approved, if something comes before the council, all the council has to say, if we want a festival, ‘That’s not in the new plan.’ … If the language stays in here where it says it needs to be consistent with the Fish and Wildlife property, we’re never going to get any festivals of increased concerts or anything like that, because you’re going to upset the birds,” Carney said.
Resident Cheryl Dowdell said residents needed to pressure the council to allow activities to take place on the 55 acres where active recreation is permitted.
“We need to preserve the right of that town property for future generations for what was intended, which was virtually unrestricted,” she said.
Carney encouraged residents to attend the Oct. 15 council meeting and demand that a survey of all residents, not just a sample group, be conducted before the completion of the comprehensive plan update.