PORTSMOUTH — Forever is such a long time, say members of the Town Council who denied the Aquidneck Land Trust’s (ALT) latest offer to help the town knock down the Elmhurst School and preserve town-owned property at the Glen.
After a long and often-contentious discussion Monday night, the council voted 3-3 on a motion to take ALT’s offer and bring put it before voters for a ballot referendum. (A tie vote defeats a motion.)
Voting in favor of the putting the matter on a ballot were council members David Gleason, Elizabeth Pedro and Keith Hamilton. Voting against were Council President James Seveney, Council Vice President John Blaess and council member Molly Magee. Council member Michael Buddemeyer, who excused himself shortly before the debate because of illness, did not vote.
The council then voted unanimously to continue negotiations with ALT. Mr. Seveney assured residents that “there’s no rush” to get a deal in place because there’s never been any outside threat to develop the property.
“There is no barbarian at the gate. There’s no Donald Trump,” he said.
The council has been negotiating for months in executive session with ALT, which originally offered the town a little over $1 million toward the demolition of the closed Elmhurst School in exchange for a perpetual conservation easement that would include a new public waterfront park once the school building is removed. On Monday night it was revealed that the offer has since grown to $1.5 million, which includes $350,000 for future open space purchases.
Mr. Blaess, who put the item on Monday’s agenda because he felt it was time for the council to decide on ALT’s offer, said the Trust does “great work” in preserving properties for the public.
“With that said, I do have issues with the offer to the town,” he said. “I just don’t like losing that control. Once you sign that agreement, you lost rights to that acreage as a town.”
Ms. Magee said her biggest problem with ALT’s offer was the finality of it all. “I’m very concerned with the perpetuity part of this. I’m very concerned that we take away from future generations what they can do with town land,” she said.
Peter McIntyre was one of several residents who also was against the ALT deal. “This is in perpetuity — forever — if we enter in agreement with the ALT. Now you have a partner,” he said.
Resident Kathleen Melvin said she’s confident that future town councils would not allow the Glen property to be commercially developed down the road. “They’ve given away roads but they’ve never given away any town-owned property,” she said.
Others, however, said the town should jump at ALT’s offer. “No way is the Aquidneck Land Trust attempting to buy this property,” said John Brady, who served on the Elmhurst Planning Committee. “All we’re asking the council to do is put it on the ballot and let the voters decide. I don’t see how any rationale person can turn down a deal like this.”
Linda Ujifusa, chairwoman of ALT’s board of trustees, said the Trust is not a “for-profit organization trying to take something from the town,” but merely a group trying to help Portsmouth with the demolition of the Elmhurst School. “We could never afford the Glen property,” she said.
‘Travesty,’ councilor says
Mr. Gleason said he strongly supported ALT’s proposal, saying it was a wise move for the future. “There is also a fear here, in some darker time, that the town may want to sell parts of the Glen,” he said, adding that was enough for him to vote for the Trust’s deal.
He also criticized those members of the council who have been “hedging” on the agreement, noting that the previous council embraced ALT’s proposal and agreed to put it before voters no later than April of this year.
“Members of this council, in my opinion, have wanted this project to die for some time,” he said, adding that it’s a “travesty and total disrespect” to citizens. “Mr. Seveney, you have basically said that the citizens are not capable of making this decision.”
Mr. Seveney shot back, saying that wasn’t true. “Don’t put words in my mouth. That’s your opinion. Don’t ever do that to me again,” he said.
While he’s willing to continue talks with ALT, Mr. Seveney said he won’t sign off on an easement that lasts forever.
“For 99 years, I would have bought off on this. But that wouldn’t fly with the Land Trust,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned over the years is, if you can’t really define the implications of your actions, why are you taking it?”