State reps seek to disband Land Trust

State reps seek to disband Land Trust

SMITHFIELD- State Representatives Thomas Winfield and Gregory Costantino have introduced a bill to disband the Smithfield Land Trust.

The proposed bill, filed prior to the Feb. 1 Land Trust meeting, states that the 1999 act establishing the Land Trust, which Winfield said he was instrumental in creating, would be “repealed in its entirety.”

“For all the good they’ve done, it is glaring what we could have done better,” Winfield said, citing numerous concerns brought up over the past several months.

The proposed bill states that functions performed and administered by the Land Trust would be transferred to the Town Council. Ownership of property would be given to the town as well. Winfield said several offices that the town already has in place could provide additional help to the council in protecting conservation efforts.

“I would never do anything to jeopardize open space or land conservation,” he said.

Most properties owned by the Land Trust have easements that will not allow for development of the property, he noted.

“They need some corrective action, and if the council isn’t going to do it, we in the General Assembly can correct it,” Winfield said.

Referring to the purchase of an easement on property belonging to Joseph Booker, former Land Trust member, Winfield said a number of mistakes were made.

Booker sold an easement to the Land Trust on a 7.54-acre plot and was paid $545,000 for the property. A conservation easement grant filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program would pay for up to 50 percent of fair market value on the property.

The trouble came with the actual value of the property, appraised by the Newport Appraisal Group at $575,000, and the property value the Land Trust reported to the federal government, which was $810,000. Expecting $405,000 in return, no fund matching grant money was received.

“It doesn’t look good,” Winfield said. “There’s been some times they should have walked away.”

At last Thursday’s Land Trust meeting, Chairwoman Barbara Rich said she did not see an avenue to appeal the USDA’s decision. The Valley Breeze reported last November that after multiple extensions from the grant program to request payment, ranging from September 2014 to September 2017, the deadline was not met.

Rich said she was not able to provide documentation confirming the approval to purchase the property.

“So I didn’t find anything in my records that said that, or records of the property that said we had approval to close. So that’s over,” she said.

Winfield said he is disheartened that the council hasn’t taken a firmer stance. His bottom line, he said the Land Trust overpaid on property, missed the grant opportunity, and the outcome came up short for the people of Smithfield.

He said he spoke with Town Council President Paul Santucci regarding corrective measures taken by the council and Land Trust and he said the council “didn’t do anything.”

“I oppose both bills and the way this was done,” Santucci said, adding the council will discuss how to formally address the bill as soon as possible.

Santucci said he was shocked to learn about the bill’s filing without council authorization, which he said the council “at no time requested that he file them or discussed them with him.”

“I don’t know why he filed them or what or who prompted him to file them,” he wrote in an email.

During the Feb. 1 Land Trust meeting, the committee made no mention of the proposed bill, as Rich said she was unaware of it until Friday when she began receiving calls.

“It was rather shocking, since no one spoke to me,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Rich said Smithfield voted on a bond and the town supported the Land Trust buying more land. She added that Land Trust decisions are approved by the Town Council, and are “not done in a vacuum.”

Without the Land Trust being interviewed by Winfield, she said he is working with partial information.

“It’s very interesting because the information that has been circulating through town about issues with the Land Trust are misrepresented,” she said.

Rich said the Land Trust has support from Smithfield residents who want to protect open spaces, and people should be very concerned for the future of municipal land trusts should the bill pass.

“I don’t know how he’s determined that he’s judge and jury,” she said.

At last Thursday’s meeting, the Land Trust unanimously elected Rich as chairwoman, Dilena Diaz as vice chairwoman, and James Leach as treasurer.

Later, members discussed updates on projects for 20 of the trust’s properties. They planned to schedule times to visit each site, and work with volunteer stewards to clean up local trails.

In other business, the Land Trust proposed to discontinue printing trail maps, and substitute a “digital map system,” with possible links to online downloadable interactive guides.