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Article 19: Parks and Rec seeks clear jurisdiction over town beach and other recreational land

Article 19 of the Spring Town Meeting warrant is a citizen petition that seeks to establish clear authority over several recreation areas that have been the subject of past disputes between the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Select Board. The core debate is over who holds jurisdiction over the use and maintenance of these areas. The voters’ decision at this week’s Town Meeting will, ideally, dispel confusion and conflict between Parks and Rec and the Select Board and allow for more efficient care and monitoring of these spaces. But it is unclear whether a town meeting vote has the power to reallocate jurisdiction, given the deeds of the land in question.

A “yes” vote would, according to Parks and Rec Chair Bob O’Shea, give Parks and Rec control over the land parcels in question. These are 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.

O’Shea said that Parks and Rec would be able to decide how these areas are used, write agreements for use, install amenities and upgrades such as sports fields, and collect any money coming in from the use of the areas. Additionally, the commission would be responsible for staffing and scheduling for events and use of the land. A “no” vote would leave these powers with the Select Board.

As jurisdiction currently stands, O’Shea said it is difficult for his committee to accomplish much. Parks and Rec is responsible for scheduling and overseeing the maintenance of the fields and other areas addressed in Article 19. Despite this, the Select Board holds the legal power to direct how these areas are used, and the two committees often come into conflict over the management of improvement projects.

For O’Shea, it is a matter of having his time and effort respected. “How many times would you like to volunteer … [and] put some time into a project and have somebody else change the decision and go [in] a different direction and basically ignore the work that you did?” he asked in a recent interview.

Unwelcome interventions

He pointed to four recent instances when the Select Board took control of projects he felt should have been overseen by Parks and Rec. The first was in 2014, when the Select Board asserted jurisdiction over the town beach to issue a license to the Bare Hill Rowing Association. Since then, there have been disagreements over negotiations regarding the filming of “Little Women” at the General Store, a sidewalk project between the General Store and the Common, and, most recently, the Ann Lees softball field.

The Ann Lees field was a controversial topic in town. Setbacks during construction led the process to drag on longer than expected, and left the girls varsity softball team with no home field and no consistent place to hold practice during the 2019 season. According to O’Shea, the project was executed by the town and school administrations without consultation with Parks and Rec. Still, when plans went awry, Parks and Rec took the fall, O’Shea said. “We got a black eye from it and we were never involved.”

Jurisdiction over one of the most contested areas, which lies between the General Store and the Congregational Church, was decided in a 2007 Special Town Meeting vote. At the time, the General Store wanted to upgrade its septic system and needed approval from the appropriate town committee. The vote transferred jurisdiction over the land from Parks and Rec to the Select Board.

Town Administrator Tim Bragan has reservations about Parks and Rec’s request for jurisdiction. He is not confident that the commission has researched possible legal barriers that would prevent a town meeting vote from affording authority over these lands.

Bragan pointed out that some of the parcels are conservation land, which he said cannot be transferred to another commission without going through the state. “Ann Lees field is part of a conservation property … in order to take that land out of conservation ... you have to go to the state and then you have to give conservation equal property.”

According to Bragan, other areas, such as the beach, were donated to the town and have certain criteria written into the deed, which the town must adhere to. “Some of that land was donated to the town specifically, so I don’t know if they’ve looked into all the legal issues of it.”

O’Shea does not dispute either of these statements. He said in an email that the beach was donated to the town by Fiske Warren in 1947 and that he is not asking to change that. “This warrant does nothing to change ownership. [Ownership] is still with the residents of the town. Jurisdiction under [Massachusetts General Law] is different and more about who is in charge of the stewardship and the decision making.”

In the same email, O’Shea wrote that greater issues including conservation status of some parcels are his reason for splitting his plan into two phases. “The schools’ fields, Ann Lees, [and] the town commons are much more complicated and will take a lot of work to decide who should have jurisdiction.”

Select Board member Stu Sklar said in an email that he is strongly against Article 19, writing that the article is “trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.” Sklar sees the Select Board as a neutral party and believes it is important for the board to be able to step in during situations of conflict as he said happened with the Bare Hill Rowing contract.

Musical chairs

The Department of Public Works is responsible for much of the maintenance of these areas, especially the mowing of the town’s fields. In an interview, DPW Director Tim Kilhart did not express a strong opinion on the outcome of the vote. He said that, in theory, a “yes” vote would make communication surrounding maintenance easier. Currently, when Parks and Rec requests work on a project in one of these areas, he often has to remind them that they have to go through the Select Board. “Right now, I play a lot of musical chairs trying to find out who has jurisdiction.”

Still, Kilhart is hesitant to expect any major changes as a result of the vote on Article 19. Getting work done still comes down to funding, and with budget cuts related to the coronavirus, he expects money to be a difficult subject in the coming year. “It’s not just about who has jurisdiction, there’s got to be funding to support all these projects that everybody wants done,” he explained.

O’Shea said the responsibilities of Parks and Rec are clear. The commission is meant to act as a steward for the town’s recreational areas and to keep other committees from building on or using the land for other purposes. “How can you protect [these areas] if you don’t even have jurisdiction [over them]?” he questioned.

If the town votes “no” on Article 19, O’Shea said he will resign from his position as Parks and Rec chair. As the system currently stands, he feels that the committee is able to maintain the status quo, but that efforts to improve spaces are limited. “If I’m going to run Parks and Rec I want to provide new capabilities, but I’m not going to do that if I’m going to be undermined by somebody who has jurisdiction on the parcel I’m working on.”

He said that the areas over which he is seeking authority in the current vote are already widely recognized as being the responsibility of Parks and Rec; the committee just needs official approval stating such.

If the article passes, O’Shea will begin working toward a second phase of jurisdiction reallocation to address other areas he is concerned about, such as the space between the Congregational Church and the General Store, and the field on Ann Lees Road.

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