There has been a proposal, perhaps "scheme" would be a better word, afoot in my town for the last several months whereby the town would give(!) 12 acres of publicly owned property to the local soccer club, a private organization, for the purpose of developing a soccer complex, including the construction of an indoor facility. In exchange for their largess the town would receive some use of the facility during "non-peak" usage times. I have been publicly angry about this cockamamie idea for some time. But why do I apply the label of "conspiracy" to the plan? Well let's examine the situation more closely.
First, a conspiracy requires an agreement between two or more parties to commit an act that is illegal or nefarious. I would include in that definition an act that subverts the public will or the public good. Here we have a proposal to develop a facility on a lot that is located in a planning zone that specifically PROHIBITS such a structure. So at the outset, to move forward with the project would require either a change to the zoning requirements or a plan to circumvent them. Clearly the parties knew or SHOULD HAVE KNOWN about the restrictions when the plan was conceived; that they chose to move forward on the plan anyway suggests something other than an "arm's length transaction" was afoot. This dark side to the plan was exposed when residents of the affected neighborhood and elsewhere began asking questions about the proposal in view of the zoning prohibition; it was then that one or another of the principal parties to the deal suggested that the arrangement could be revised to allow the town to retain legal title to the property and lease it to the soccer club, thereby transforming the deal as if by magic into an allowable "municipal" use of the property. Hey, why let pesky regulations get in the way of a good (for the soccer club anyway) deal, right? Happily the public outcry over this ill-conceived brainchild led to its early demise, although I have been told that the suggestion was not rejected out of hand, as it should have been, but was "withdrawn" while they explored other options. So, "illegal or nefarious"? - in my humble opinion, most certainly.
Next, a conspiracy requires a "meeting of the minds" to commit the act; do we have that here and if so, who are the parties to it? On the one hand we have the soccer club and its representatives. most visibly its president, a local attorney (maybe retired, I'm not sure). We have the Town Council and its individual members, all of whom are elected officials charged with planning and enacting policies and procedures to advance the (public) interests of the town. And we have the Town Manager, a long-time appointed bureaucrat whose job is to manage the day-to-day business affairs of the town. Honestly, I do not know who first contrived this plan and I certainly do not understand how he or she or they convinced the others that it was a good idea, but apparently in the end all of the players (possibly excepting one or more Councilors) apparently bought into the idea. But here's the thing: it can only be seen as a good idea in light of some belief or expectation that the zoning restrictions would not ultimately bar the development. In other words, somebody must have given some kind of assurance to the others that the zoning would not be a problem - without such assurance the proposal makes absolutely no sense from a business or any other point of view. So the question is, who gave that assurance, and what was the basis for it? Council members have professed ignorance of the of the zoning prohibition, and two ex-councilors said they asked the Town Manager about it and were either given no answer or a misleading answer, depending on whom you ask. I think it's safe to say that the president of the club, an attorney, would be more than familiar with the "due diligence" requirements of entering into such a deal so he must have been led to believe that there was a reasonable prospect that the development could move forward; or maybe the prospect of all that free land just falling into his lap caused a momentary lapse in judgment - I just don't know.
Planning to do something illegal or nefarious (or immoral or fattening) is just so much talk until there is an act in furtherance of the plan, at which point it becomes a conspiracy. So what has been done to advance this plan to date? Well, there's this as related to me in an email from one of the Councilors: "The Town negotiated a P&S agreement with (the soccer club) in which they would obtain ownership of the parcel in exchange for use of the fields by (town) residents." That's an overt act, I'd say. Then there's something more subtle but maybe more telling of the nature of the "deal", an act undertaken by yet another developer, the one who proposed that the town spend $2.3million of "surplus funds" to buy to buy and develop property adjacent to the one at issue, and build yet more fields and trails for town use. This deal was actually approved by the Council (without a public vote) and the project has been completed. But here's where it intersects with the Soccer Club proposal, again quoting from the Councilor's email to me: "This development group entered into discussions with (the soccer club) about relocating a portion of their facility onto the (adjacent) parcel thereby allowing (the soccer club) to redesign their project to avoid most of the natural resources impacted in their original design. With this redesign the... project gained new life and began to look into what zoning issues needed to be addressed to move the project forward." So one private interest group redesigns its project to facilitate development by another group, ALL WHILE THE PROJECT IS SPECIFICALLY PROHIBITED BY ZONING REGULATIONS. And on the topic of the zoning issue, the town Planning Board weighed in on that issue in November with a recommendation "that the council reject zoning changes needed to build the soccer complex in a rural residential district." (Portland Press Herald, 1/11/2012)
The saga may yet have a happy, non-conspiratorial ending. According to the same news paper account, "The council had planned to hold a workshop next Tuesday with (soccer club) representatives, but the meeting has been postponed to give them more time to consider alternative sites..."
(For the record, I am not alleging that a criminal conspiracy exists or that any of the parties to the "deal" have engaged in any criminal acts. But sometimes something that's not a crime nevertheless stinks so bad that you have to take a stand against it as a matter of principle, and the residents of my town took a firm stand; I do believe the Town Council may have heard them (but we'll see - this may not yet be over.)