A Matter of Trust
Legislation that would abolish the Smithfield Land Trust - introduced by the same representative who helped create it two decades ago - has ignited a heated debate in town, where two longtime residents say the trust paid nearly a million dollars to political ``insiders’’ to protect land that couldn’t have be developed anyway. The longtime chairwoman of the trust says everything was done by the book, under the direction of multiple town councils. Jim Hummel says the issue now has the attention of a statewide coalition of land trusts.
Click here to see the Smithfield Land Trust land holdings.
For some in Smithfield it doesn’t seem that long ago the town looked like this: sprawling farms, apple orchards and wooded areas in a 28-square-mile community that in its early days was largely agrarian. But housing developments like this one, and the explosion of commercial development along Route 44 prompted town leaders in the late 1990s to create a land trust - charged with obtaining open space and preserving select tracts of land from developers.
And voters in 2004 approved a $5.1 million taxpayer bond to help the land trust accomplish it.
Winfield: ``We wanted to acquire property that would maintain some of the rural characteristics of our town. And I don’t think anybody disagrees with that. It’s how we went about it. In that some of the way we did it, maybe we could be doing it a lot better and maybe getting more bang for our buck.’’
State Representative Thomas Winfield, who sponsored the legislation creating the land trust has now reversed course - filing a bill in February to abolish it, after speaking with two leading critics of the all-volunteer board: Al Costantino and Jackson Despres, both business owners and longtime residents.
They have led the charge in questioning the land trust’s acquisitions: including several they say went to political insiders like Town Councilwoman Maxine Cavanagh.
Last month dozens of people packed the town’s senior citizens center to debate a resolution the town council drafted opposing Winfield’s legislation to abolish the land trust. Over the course of nearly two hours many rose to defend the trust’s effort. Costantino and Despres were not among them.
Winfield: ``The leadership on the council has tried desperately to prohibit us from speaking, because they don’t like what we have to say. We’re exposing inappropriate conduct and behavior on the part of certain individuals and they don’t like that.
Costantino: ``You know if somebody pours Kool Aid in my glass, I don’t go for it. A lot of the records in the land trust was Kool Aid.’’
Since late 2000 the trust has spent $7 million to acquire 21 properties totaling more than 1,000 acres, including this massive tract across the street from Stump Pond.
The land trust’s longtime chairwoman Barbara Rich - in a wide-ranging interview - tells The Hummel Report everything was done by the book and with the approval of five councils during her 10 years in leadership.
Rich: ``It’s great for Mr. Despres to say that we paid too much, or that we paid too much for a certain parcel, but everything we did was by appraisal. And that takes into consideration properties nearby, big tracts of land.’’
Costantino compiled a 118-page report for the council based on nearly 60 hours of research that includes plat maps, emails, appraisals and land evaluations by trust members visiting potential properties. He said two purchases in particular raised red flags.
The town bought a ``conservation easement’’ for 12 acres on Stump Pond from Town Councilwoman Maxine Cavanagh and her husband Paul for $390,000 in 2009 - and another conservation easement for a 7 ½-acre farm near the Glocester line for $545,000 from Jeffrey Booker, a former 10-year member of the land trust.
The easement allows the sellers to remain on their property and benefit from a slight reduction in property taxes, with a promise the land will not be developed. Costantino said the public perception alone of doing a deal with a longtime councilwoman should have scuttled the purchased.
Costantino: ``My whole issue with the Cavanagh property is: it’s a nice piece of property, with a house and a barn, it’s on Stump Pond, it’s just not a farm, it’s not a big piece of property, they had a plan to cut it up into, I believe, five house lots, which they never did and they gave development rights to it.’’
Cavanagh, a Republican, was first elected to the council in 2004. She was defeated in 2006, then reelected in November 2008 and has been on the council since then. She and her husband approached the land trust in early 2008 about a conservation easement for 9 ½ of their 12 acres on Log Road. Cavanagh and Rich, who was appointed to the land trust while Cavanagh was serving her first term on the council, were both cleared by the state Ethics Commission to begin negotiations. The $390,000 deal was completed in December of 2009, a year after Cavanagh had returned to the council.
Costantino: ``I can show you many properties in town that someone has a house and 10 acres of land, so why weren’t they entitled to the same opportunity to get development rights as Cavangah and Booker?’’
Rich: ``I thought that we had explained how that had all worked, and that there was no deal and everything was done fine, but apparently that didn’t satisfy (the ciritics).’’
Those critics, Costantino and Despres, said Booker’s property was an unlikely candidate for development - 2,200 feet from a sewer line in low-lying property below a berm keeping back George Waterman Lake.
Hummel: ``If you walked away from that deal, did you really have concerns that that would be a property that might turn into something you didn’t want it to be?’’
Rich: ``I’m not sure that we ever worried about that, really. I don’t know how to answer that actually. It wasn’t a point of discussion. Like: Oh geez, if we don’t do this.’’
A staff attorney for the Rhode Island Ethics Commission tells The Hummel Report Booker asked for advisory opinions in 2009, then again in 2010 but withdrew both before the commission could hear them.
Hummel: ``Do you understand the perception problem with the fact that Mr. Booker had been on the land trust for 10 years, do you get that?’’
Rich: ``Yes, yes.’’
Hummel: ``And what do you say to that?’’
Rich: ``Absolutely. The fact that we followed the same procedures that we always have. I think if the town council had said you can’t do it. Or you shouldn’t do it. If they had maybe been a little more inquisitive maybe that would have changed our discussion of it.’’
Then there’s a 2009 donation to the land trust by Mary Mowry: 21 acres and a house, plus $600,000. Costantino says her will directed that the board sell the house and five acres, which still has not been done. Rich countered that the will offered the land trust the possibility but selling it was not a directive.
Hummel: ``What do you make of their presentation?’’
Rich: ``That they cherry picked what they wanted out of the documents and the records to formulate their opinion, to back up what they thought was going on.’’
As for the criticism?
Rich: ``They don’t know me. I don’t know why they think I have some kind of power to do deals, or that I was doing nefarious stuff. I have no idea why they think that. Because they’ve never even talked to me.’’
Winfield’s proposed legislation has caught the attention of a state coalition of land trusts, whose executive director says if Smithfield’s is abolished it could have a chilling effect on donations. And Rich said she’s not sure Mowry would have given the town the $600,000 she donated to the land trust were it not in place.
She’s also concerned about some of the negative publicity the land trust has received.
Rich: ``Because no property owner is going to want to come to us if they think that we’re doing the wrong thing, or if they think their property is going to get snatched away. Or people donated property to us, is it going to get taken by the town? That’s a real concern.’’
Despres said he would like to see more board members with financial and real estate expertise, adding that some of the property the land trust had bought conservation rights to had little chance of being developed.
Despres: ``There were many of the other properties that because of physical characteristics: wetlands, ledge, configuration of the land itself, location, inaccessibility, lack of sewer and water, many, many different constraints, those properties in my mind were not economically developable. In which case you could either not touch them and let Father Time preserve them, or you could have paid a lot less money for the acquisition or development rights to those pieces.’’
Costantino agrees, saying the land trust could have driven harder bargains to acquire open space or give out conservation easements.
Costantino: ``Say an appraisal comes in for $300, 000 saying the development rights are worth $300,000, offer them $165,000. What are they going to do? There’s only one land trust in Smithfield. What are they going to do, go to another land trust? Go home and think about it. If you decide to do it, give us a call back. That’s how a business person does business.’’
As for the legislation: the council passed a resolution that it sent to House Speaker Nick Mattiello opposing Winfield’s bill. Council President Paul Santucci says the council has met with the land trust and he is confident that some recent management changes have put the board in a good position going forward.
Winfield says he hasn’t decided whether to amend his current bill or introduce a new one, but adds he won’t stop until there are more changes.
Winfield: ``I filed the legislation to keep it in the public eye, get some attention and prod them into action.’’
In Smithfield, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.