Friday, March 17, 2006
Land Stewards to study Foss Farm ball field feasibility
It is not going to be easy to stitch together an agreement on the future of Foss Farm, but three of the principal players made a shaky start at a Conservation Commission (ConsCom) meeting on March 9. Recreation Commission (RecCom) chairman Allen Deary and five members of the Land Stewardship Committee accepted ConsCom's invitation to attend, following RecCom's withdrawal of its $80,000 request to the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) for funding to develop a design plan for ball fields at Foss Farm.
ConsCom chairman Tom Schultz summarized a March 1 CPC request for a joint proposal for development of a management/master plan for Foss Farm, the multi-use parcel off Bedford Road. The CPC is the seven-member committee made up of representatives from the Board of Selectmen, Planning Board, ConsCom, RecCom, Housing Authority, Historical Commission and one at-large seat, which clears and recommends disbursement of funds from a 2% real estate surcharge collected under the Community Preservation Act. CPC members, including Selectman Tim Hult, had earlier stated as a priority that the resulting study committee answer long-standing uncertainties about state, federal and deed constraints that can limit the town's options, and fashion a reduced request for funding, if that appears to be necessary. They also asked that current and potential users of the parcel be consulted and public hearings scheduled.
In an attempt to lessen RecCom's expressed concerns about ConsCom's impartiality, Schultz and company indicated they would like to step back, to the degree that their legal responsibilities allowed, and ask the Land Stewardship Committee (LSC) to assume the leadership role in the process. Therefore, he asked LSC vice-chair Lynn Knight for that group's perspective.
Land Stewards help manage ConsCom lands
Knight began by noting her committee's bewilderment when they first read of the original RecCom proposal in the Mosquito. She reminded ConsCom members that last year they had adopted guidelines for a permanent Land Stewardship Committee that would gather extensive data, evaluate present and future usage and propose management plans for all town-owned conservation parcels. That guideline included a detailed, sample management plan that could serve as a prototype for those to come. She recalled that, following an appeal for volunteers for a permanent Land Stewardship Committee to serve under minimum ConsCom direction, "Twelve highly qualified volunteers, drawn from a diversified population, showed up for the first meeting in December, were duly sworn in and went to work immediately." As one of the largest and most complex properties, Foss Farm received top priority and three "stewards" were assigned to do the research. She concluded, "We urge that you let us get on with our work."
Commissioner Tricia Smith confirmed that this was ConsCom's intention and added that, if funds were needed for any aspect of the study that didn't fit existing members' areas of expertise or resources, she felt they should consider accepting CPC's offer of a modest working fund. Knight responded that her committee was currently gathering "baseline data" concerning history and legal entanglements and did not require funding for that phase. Emphasizing the multi-use nature of the parcel, Commissioner John Lee said the LSC should take a careful look at existing activities at Foss Farm and hold public hearings concerning what might logically be done with the balance of the open space.
RecCom seeks ball field, wants vote in Foss planning
Deary then entered the exchange of views, saying RecCom is mainly interested because they believe they can put a ball field there. He indicated that they would like to see the planning go forward as projected at an August 12 meeting of the Board of Selectmen, "When the recommended process didn't happen, I made the suggestion to the CPC that the planning get started," he said, and continued, "Foss Farm is a very special piece of property. It's one we can use, but we want to bring groups together and see what may be possible. Schultz countered that before that phase of planning could go forward, "We need to answer the questions, 'Can it be done? And if so, should it be done?'" To which Deary responded that he wanted a more inclusive group that would include the LSC, assuring them, "I'd like to figure a way we can do it together."
In the exchanges that followed, ConsCom members emphasized their conviction that the LSC, with its carefully developed process, was properly constituted to lay the factual background, and that their members were unique in that they had no vested interests in the outcome. Deary, on the other hand, said he would like to see a committee like the one that developed a plan for a ball field on the Benfield property. Commissioner Kelly Stringham pointed out the basic legal difference between properties like Foss Farm and Banta-Davis where, in the first instance, ConsCom had the legal responsibility and, in the second, RecCom was the designated manager. The Benfield property, on the other hand, had had no existing commission jurisdiction.
Lee, who is ConsCom's representative on the CPC, called for a three-step approach: 1) determine whether ball fields can or cannot be done legally; 2) if such a facility is legally feasible, look at existing uses and, after seeking public input, determine what future usage may or may not make sense, and 3) approach CPC and finally Town Meeting with a request for whatever funding may be deemed necessary to carry out the town's wishes.
Again attempting to allay Deary's misgivings about the Stewardship Committee doing the research into the nature and validity of the legal and environmental constraints, and exploring the interests and concerns of existing and potential users, Schultz asked if Deary would be willing to meet with the LSC, saying, "We think you will find them capable of doing the job well and in an unprejudiced manner." Deary said he would be happy to try it. "I want to be part of the process and have a vote in what happens We [RecCom] are passionate about it," he explained. Schultz took that opportunity to underscore ConsCom's contention that LSC was the group to take the lead, saying, "That's the point; they are dispassionate about it." Watson added that, "This group will come up with a disinterested study and they are not expected to take a vote." Still evincing skepticism, Deary agreed to "give it a try."
RecCom's next meeting is April 3, that of the LSC is April 4, and the deadline for action by the CPC is April 6.
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