The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 1, 2005


Debriefing a ConsCom veteran:
Brownrigg hangs up commissioner's hat

Tom Brownrigg checks a bluebird box on Towle Field. (Courtesy photo)

The Conservation Commission is losing a veteran member whom colleagues describe as "the voice of reason" on a board that deals regularly with sensitive, pocketbook issues. Tom Brownrigg is retiring from the commission after six years but assures the Mosquito that he plans to remain active in the environmental community and is planning to certify two vernal pools this summer.

Interviewing the retired spectroscopic instrumentation expert on his sun porch, the reporter's attention is easily diverted from the job at hand by the flurry of avian diners that dart in to enjoy seeds, cut-up oranges, or take a quick dip in the birdbath. It is no news that Tom and his artist wife D'Ann are expert birders. So it seemed logical to begin the interview by asking him about the status of our feathered neighbors, as development nibbles away at their natural habitats.

Bobolinks returning

Brownrigg is happy to report that Carlisle's cherished bobolinks are returning to the lush grass that three years of sheep grazing have bestowed on Towle Field. He was also pleased to discover a newly hatched family of wild turkeys nestled close to a protective stone wall. On the other hand, so far this season he has not heard the haunting tremolo of the hermit thrush and only once the flutelike voice of its cousin, the wood thrush. This seeming absence is a real worry to a lover of the deep woods and its songsters.

The conversation morphed easily from the bird census to Brownrigg's outlook on the threat to the town and its vaunted "rurality" from 40B and other development pressures. Specifically, how does he assess recent feelers from the Affordable Housing Task Force as to the possibility of portions of existing conservation lands being made available as future housing sites?

"this 40B thing really scares me"

There was a long pause before Brownrigg articulated a response. "A year ago I would have been totally opposed, but this 40B thing really scares me. Under that scenario, dense development could occur without fulfilling the state's requirement for affordable units but endangering all our water resources. Wells, wetlands, surface and ground water all could be contaminated and force the building of expensive infrastructure at the taxpayers' expense." Therefore, if creative ways could be found to use some of the land, while meeting the provisions of Article 97 of the state constitution and change-of-use requirements for lands acquired with partial state funding, he said he might be persuaded. As an example, he cited the suggestion that some acreage on the Greenough Land might be swapped for a permanent conservation restriction on the Conant Land in the Town Center. In the past, he had opposed using Conant for affordable housing "because it is such a unique terrain near enough to the schools to serve as a laboratory for environmental education." Protecting it might make a lot of sense.

The discussion of Conant segued into a recurring theme of the interview, Brownrigg's conviction that American children should be made more aware of nature, if they and it are to remain healthy. He reminisced about time he and a childhood friend spent in a small wooded area near his home about 25 miles west of Chicago. "We filled many hours exploring, and later identifying and cataloguing plants, birds and insects. I'm thankful our lives were free-style and relatively unorganized."

ConsCom a learning experience

Asked what he had enjoyed most about serving on the commission, Brownrigg replied immediately. "I learned so much about town government and the people who make it work. Even as a lifelong environmentalist I also gained a new understanding of the role wetlands play in our daily lives — sequestering water, preventing flooding, enriching soil, and sustaining an incredible variety of wildlife." He gave full credit to the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions (MACC) for their "indispensable" courses that offer new commissioners the basic information needed to perform their duties. He noted the variety of skills possessed by current commission members and added, "We are also blessed with a fine administrator in Sylvia Willard, who sees to it that we have all the information we need ahead of each meeting. If I'm unprepared to consider an issue, it's my own fault."

Strengthen the wetland bylaw

Looking to unresolved issues that face the commission, Brownrigg stressed the need to strengthen local bylaws. He would like to see a no-build setback of at least 25 feet, and preferably 50 feet, from a wetland. At present the commission can "condition" work within the 100 foot buffer zone, but that lack of precision makes for a great deal of unnecessary haggling. He believes it would make it easier for everyone concerned, including developers, if there were a clearly defined limit, as exists in many area towns.

Turning reluctantly to enforcement procedures, Brownrigg observed that, "Most violators are ignorant, not malignant, and the commission strives to win their cooperation in doing what the law requires." However, referring to those who hold that they should be able to do whatever they desire on their own property, he is firm. "Wetlands are a prime example of a public as against a private right. What you do on your property may adversely impact your neighbor and is rightfully subject to regulation."

Although reticent about discussing his private activities, Brownrigg did reveal that he is working part-time at Tufts University as a research associate in spectroscopy, returning to the subject of his graduate work at the University of Chicago. He is also doing some chemistry tutoring at home.

The retiring commissioner begged off from a request to deliver a parting message to his successors, but asked that we use a quote from a former colleague, Eric Jensen, who died in a tragic accident in 1999. In a pre-appointment interview at ConsCom, the Brandeis professor had declared, "People typically move to Carlisle for one of three reasons: snob address appeal; the schools; or the trees, frogs, and birds. I came for the trees; enjoy the birds, frogs and dragonflies, and look forward to seeing what the town is doing to keep them healthy."

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito