Smithfield Town Council opposes disbanding Land Trust

Smithfield Town Council opposes disbanding Land Trust

SMITHFIELD – Town Council members want no part of a plan that would have them taking over purchases of open space.

The council on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution to the Rhode Island General Assembly strongly opposing a proposed bill to disband the Smithfield Land Trust and hand over its operations to the Town Council during a contentious meeting at the Smithfield Senior Center.

Rep. Thomas Winfield, of District 53, Smithfield and Glocester, and Rep. Gregory Costantino, of District 44, Lincoln, Smithfield and Johnston, signed the bills, filed Feb. 1 in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. The resolution passed Tuesday stated that the Town Council was not consulted prior to filing of the bill, and did not approve of its contents.

Because of those reasons, as wella s the fact that there has not been a study or evaluation on the possible effects of eliminating the Land Trust, the council said it wishes to have the Land Trust continue its operation.

“Smithfield state reps do not supercede Town Council. They do not have veto power over what we do. The dangers imposed over such power are illustrated well here,” Santucci said.

Winfield said he put the legislation in to generate improvements in Land Trust operations and ethics. After speaking with the council, he said he saw nothing was getting done, and decided to put in the bill.

“There’s people saying we didn’t have problems, well we had somebody that sat on the Land Trust step down, and did their deal, and that’s wrong,” Winfield said Tuesday.

Winfield noted that he was instrumental in forming the Land Trust in 1999.

Santucci said he received an “extremely detailed” management plan at the Land Trust meeting on Feb. 1 and began discussions during the March 1 Land Trust meeting regarding the organization’s policies, procedures and bylaws.

“I was somewhat of a sharp critic early on, I’ve probably read about 700 pages of documents, closed session items, etc. I have my share of disappointment, but I have a lot of faith in the volunteers, of what they’ve done, and I do believe it will be viable going forward,” he said.

Costantino said he was watching out for the taxpayers when he proposed the bill, and suggested the council get a forensic audit done of the Land Trust. He said a town-approved $5 million bond accrues an additional $2.4 million in interest over a 20-year period.

Costantino said the Land Trust is a good thing, but he has questions about some of the deals it’s done.

“There’s a lot of questions here that are unanswered, and when Rep. Winfield proposed the bill, it wasn’t to get rid of the Land Trust, it was to get your attention,” Costantino said.

Winfield previously told The Valley Breeze & Observer he would not schedule a hearing for the bill in the House of Representatives until after meeting with the town, and still has not scheduled one.

In spite of the written resolution to be delivered to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Smithfield’s General Assembly delegation, and all members of the House of Representatives, Council Member Suzy Alba said Tuesday’s vote does not mean the bill will be withdrawn.

“There’s been many of times that councils have submitted resolutions to the state for a variety of issues and it’s their prerogative whether or not to do that,” she said.

She encouraged people to testify at a House hearing, should there be one.

“I just need you to know that you’re asking the council to make a decision tonight, but ultimately it’s not our decision, unfortunately, because the bills have already been submitted,” she said.

Alba said this issue comes down to communication, and though there was a failure of communication on many levels, the silver lining is that more people are talking about the Land Trust.

Alba spoke against Santucci’s action to write a resolution opposing the Land Trust and business registration bills without consulting with other council members first.

“I had no knowledge that you had asked to have a resolution drawn to propose the House bill for the business registration fees,” she added, “So you’re sitting here as the leader of the local Town Council asking our state representatives to talk with us before they submit state legislation, when you sit right across from us and you don’t even talk with us before you submit local resolutions.”

In addition to the Land Trust bill, Winfield had also submitted a bill to repeal that businesses in Smithfield register and pay a $25 registration fee to the town. In a vote again split on party lines, the council passed the resolution opposing the bill 3-2, with Alba and Councilor Michael Lawton opposed.

Around 100 people attended Tuesday’s meeting, many eager to speak about the bill. The usual public comment time limit was lifted for the hearing, allowing people to comment before the council decision was made.

Most who spoke urged the council to pass the resolution and continue the Land Trust as an independent entity. Former council and trust members, as well as members of the Conservation Commission and and Historic Preservation Commission, spoke.