Town Council holds last minute info session on Overlook purchase
Last week the Block Island community was surprised at the announcement that a $4.5 million expenditure was being added to the warrant for the annual Financial Town Meeting at the last minute. The announcement came at the April 21 Council meeting where, after emerging from a closed session with the Block Island Land Trust, the town would pursue the purchase of a portion of the Overlook property, which sits between Champlin’s Marina andthe Salt Pond Settlement.
The Town Council was divided on the idea, with First Warden Andre Boudreau and Councilor Martha Ball voting against placing the item on the warrant.
The public had many questions, including why this was being done so quickly and being put forward to voters when there were so many unanswered questions. To alleviate some of the mystery, the Town Council held what was billed as an information session for the public to get some answers on Wed. April 28.
There was an introduction by Town Manager Maryanne Crawford, who outlined the scope of the project. Owners of the Overlook property have applied for a subdivision whereby the land would be split into two parcels, one containing the Overlook building, and the other, a vacant lot of about 5 acres reaching, in a triangular manner, from the road down to the shore of the Great Salt Pond. The idea, said Crawford was to create “harbormaster infrastructure” that would include an office, restrooms, showers, town employee living space, and storage for paddle-boards, kayaks, and “other recreational amenities.” There would be welcome facilities, docks, and ramps.
The cost of the land will be $10.5 million, with the Block Island Land Trust contributing $4 million “in cash” and the Block Island Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy contributing $2 million from fundraising. The balance, $4.5 million would financed by town bonds, which of course means taxpayer money.
The $10.5 million doesn’t cover the cost of building a harbors facility. That is anticipated to come with a $2.5 million price tag, and would not be on the town budget until 2025.
The cost does come with a right of first refusal on the resulting lot that the Overlook building would sit on after the subdivision is approved, for a period of three years.
When asked about the impact on property taxes, town Finance Director Amy Land said it would be $137 per year in additional taxes for a property valued at one million.
Although the meeting was billed as an information session, Councilor Keith Stover launched into a speech about how he initially was against it, and then came around. He acknowledged the objections of others concerning the significant price, the need for other projects, and how it fits in with the priorities of the town.
“Here’s where I came out after feeling kind of negative,” said Stover. “We don’t have high-quality infrastructure that gives residents access to the Great Salt Pond for the range of activities one can engage in,” which included “the ability to fool around on small boats.” He said this type of facility was common in other communities, but did not give examples.
Councilor Martha Ball, who objected to the use of meeting time for “lobbying and filibustering,” said she thought “housing was more important than another place [for people] to launch their kayaks. No disrespect to kayaks.”
Boudreau said he too was very concerned about year-round housing.
Former First Warden Ken Lacoste, speaking as a member of the public, asked how much planning and mapping out of the property had been done to “justify the claim that 1.75 acres can be used for all this stuff?”
“As far as I know, none,” answered Boudreau.
“I do know there’s been conceptual sketches,” said Councilor Sven Risom, although he also said he didn’t know “who owned them” or where they could be found. “It’s a little bit liquid.”
The suitability of the site also came into question. Regarding kayaks, Boudreau said they would be launching into a main navigational channel that could be dangerous. He asked Lacoste how deep the water was in the area.
Lacoste answered that it was shallow, and very rocky. “The beauty of the boat launch at the Block Island Maritime Institute is it’s pretty deep.” He also noted the need for turn-around space for vehicles with boat trailers.
Claire Costello, a founding member of the Committee for the Great Salt Pond, said: “My understanding is this is a full-on facility. This has been a full-on need for 40 years.” She emphasized, as did others that the GSP was an economic engine for the island. “It’s disgraceful to offer boaters only two toilets and a dumpster.”
There were many thoughtful questions, including the cost to taxpayers, the actual width of the waterfront (124 feet), the proximity to Ball O’Brien Park and whether those lots were contiguous or if the Salt Pond Settlement land went all the way to the shore.
There were also comments regarding the wisdom of rushing into the purchase. The Ball O’Brien Park acquisition by the town was originally slated for a harbors facility, and Boudreau recalled “we were told it would be our last opportunity” to purchase such a space on the Pond. “Now we’re being told this is our last opportunity.”
There were the suggestions that now that Ball O’Brien has been deemed too steep for a harbors facility, it perhaps wasn’t fully vetted in the first place, and the same thing could happen if the Overlook property was purchased. Harbormaster Kate McConville said that since the town’s Harbor Management Plan has not yet been accepted by the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, she didn’t know if the town could put a dock in the proposed location, although Attorney Bill Landry pointed out that the waters in the area were designated “Type 3” by the CRMC, meaning they were suitable for wharves, marinas and high-intensity boating.
Some thought the purchase price of $10.5 million was too high, and above market. The last appraisal was done in July 2020, before Champlin’s was sold, which may have set a precedent. A new appraisal is being performed.
Sam Bird though talked about the price of “legacy properties” and that it was common for municipalities to balk at high prices, but that years down the road, it would all seem worth it.
There was also the feeling that there were unexplored possibilities for new private/public partnerships, especially with new management at the New Harbor Boat Basin, which currently hosts the Harbors summer office, and is re-doing a building and bathrooms that will be open to the public, albeit maybe for a small fee.
And, there was a suspicion that the purchase was being made to preclude other, private development, with people asking about what else could be built on the lot, although some, including Chris Littlefield of The Nature Conservancy, felt that preventing development was a noble goal in and of itself for the protection of the pond.
Risom allowed that the process and timing “had been a little tight.”
Resident Bill McCombe said: “The real injustice here is, two weeks before the Financial Town Meeting, to bring this to the floor. We don’t have information in front of us. It’s really unfortunate we’re being asked for $4.5 million five days before.” being asked to approve it.
The Financial Town Meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 3, at the Block Island School gymnasium.