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Town Meeting grants control of beach, track, and fields to Parks and Recreation Commission

Updated June 26, 2020. See Editor's Note below.

An article to transfer jurisdiction over six parcels of land from the Select Board to the Parks and Recreation Commission was passed by voters at the Spring Town Meeting last Saturday. The article, which was brought to Town Meeting by a citizen petition, was one of the most contentious issues on the floor. The issue garnered over 40 minutes of debate with much of the time spent clearing up confusion over whether the article would take a majority or a two-thirds vote.

The controversy lay in which town board had jurisdiction over the Pond Road walking path, Bare Hill Pond beach and woods, the Charlie Waite Field, McCurdy Track and Harvard Park, and the Ryan Land and Depot Road fields. The areas addressed have, historically, been overseen by Parks and Rec. However, Massachusetts law states that without a Town Meeting vote specifically awarding stewardship to Parks and Rec, jurisdiction would lie with the Select Board by default. Over the years, this has led to some conflict over roles and responsibilities.

Parks and Recreation Chairman Bob O'Shea. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)

Because the article was the result of a citizen petition, it was not reviewed by the town prior to the meeting. Town Administrator Tim Bragan said the moderator and Town Counsel Mark Lanza reviewed the documents related to the article the morning of the meeting. During this review, they determined that jurisdiction could be awarded through a majority vote, but since many of the properties were deeded to the town for specific purposes, Parks and Rec would not be able to make any changes in use. To have authority over how the areas are used, the commission would need a two-thirds vote.

Lanza explained this on the floor of the meeting. “Some of the parcels here are held by the town for very broad municipal uses … one of the examples is the Ryan Land and Depot Road fields, if … those parcels are transferred to the Parks and Recreation Commission for Parks and Recreation purposes, that is a change in use.” Which type of vote would be necessary would depend on how Parks and Rec planned to use the land, he said. “Any change of use, two-thirds, leave them exactly as they are, majority.”

Parks and Rec Chair Bob O’Shea said he learned the morning of the meeting that he would need a two-thirds rather than a majority vote if he wanted to make any changes in the current use of the properties. He said that Parks and Rec actually wants to reduce the scope of use. “We’re trying to preserve and protect open space and recreational lands,” he explained. Even that is considered a change in use, however, and requires the steeper vote.

Those who had concerns about passing the article brought up issues such as funding, responsibility, and debate about whether the commission had tried to address issues around lack of clear jurisdiction in other ways.

Not perfect, but far better

Select Board member Stu Sklar stood to voice his opinion against the article. “This is not something that has been thought out,” he said. He contended that leaving jurisdiction with the Select Board was an important check on power, saying: “There are times when appointed boards need to have an adult in the room … the fact of the matter is maybe this is the right answer, but this is the wrong way to accomplish it. It seems to me it should be boards talking about it and then bringing it to the town meeting.”

Rich Maiore, another member of the Select Board, disagreed with Sklar. “What we are doing currently is not working,” he said, citing a tense relationship between the Select Board and Parks and Rec, which he described as ineffective and uncoordinated with “lack of good communication.” He saw the passage of Article 19 as the first step in resetting that relationship. “This is not perfect, but this is … far better … than what we are currently working with.”

Another counterpoint to this was made by Board of Health member Libby Levison, who spoke prior to Sklar. “If this moves to Parks and Rec jurisdiction … there are still safety mechanisms in place,” she said. “You would have to get approval [from the] Conservation Commission for, for instance, things that can happen on the lower Pond Road field because it’s within a public water supply [area]. You have to come to the Board of Health and inform us of what work you are doing there.”

One speaker voiced concern that Parks and Rec would not be able to fund maintenance or coordinate maintenance with the Department of Public Works. She worried that the commission might use its power to close town fields or forgo consultation with other town boards when making decisions on the parcels.

Shortly afterward, Parks and Rec board member Michelle Lauria stood to address “the general theme that Parks and Rec is going to go rogue.” She assured voters that: “No one is going rogue here, we’re not trying to underhand or undermine anybody. We are simply trying to get one point of contact.”

O’Shea had a similar comment. “We are trying to protect this land for parks and recreation, but I don’t think people should walk away with the impression that we can go off and turn it into a mall or something,” he said.

No need for a count

Evidently, the voices of those in favor of the article were strong enough to persuade the crowd. The article passed by a clear enough margin that the moderator didn’t have to employ his convoy of vote counters.

With Parks and Rec now the official steward of these land parcels, O’Shea said in an interview a few days after the meeting that he doesn’t have any drastic or immediate plans to make changes. However, he would like to see the town’s fields in better condition. “We basically overuse these fields … because of that they get far too worn … and they can’t be maintained correctly.” He said that a recent break in use due to the coronavirus was taken as an opportunity to rehabilitate the fields but that, prior to this spring, they had been in poor shape.

One way to address the issue of overuse would be to establish more playing fields, O’Shea said. This is something he would like to work on in the future, but there are no current plans to pursue such a project. “We have some ideas in building up to new fields on some of this land but … it’s just a thought right now.”

With this initial victory in his pocket, O’Shea said he will now begin preparing for what he calls “phase two” of his quest for jurisdiction. In this second phase, he will seek authority over parcels such as Ann Lees Field, the library field, the Pond Road field, and the space between the Congregational Church and the General Store, which he expects will pose greater challenges. Ideally, he said that these would be voted on at the 2021 Spring Town Meeting, but “it’s going to be a lot of work to get that done.”

Editor's Note: In an email to the Press this week, Bob O’Shea wrote that Phase 2 was not a personal quest. “It is a Parks and Rec pursuit to clear up who has jurisdiction and who will take the responsibility to maintain the [town’s] park and recreation resources.” He said the commission would be “just as happy” if the Select Board took responsibility for the commons and the schools took responsibility for their parcels. “What we don’t want is all the stewardship hassles with an ‘adult’ that can step in at any time and change our plans. I am actually hoping other town organizations step up and take some responsibility."

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