WVN #412: Committee Dissed, Then Dissolved
- Dear Wayland Voter,
There are countless examples over generations of volunteers freely sharing their time and professional expertise on boards, committees and commissions, and being thanked for saving the town money while strengthening Wayland's tradition of participative democracy.
Then there is the politics-laden demise of the Wellhead Protection Committee last week.
Also in this newsletter: Controversy over a plan to combine assisted living and community agriculture.
COMMITTEE IGNORED, THEN INSULTED AND DISSOLVED
The Board of Water Commissioners created the Wellhead Protection Committee in November 2007 to "develop, maintain and oversee the Wellhead Protection Plan and ensure that every effort is made to carry out its details." With the help of a consultant paid for by a federal grant, the five-member committee issued a Plan this spring that was praised by the Department of Environmental Protection, which encourages towns in this long-range thinking. See WVN Newsletter #408, Wayland's Plan to Protect Water:
The committee members' thanks for this, after years of largely being ignored, was to learn through a news release not addressed to them that the committee was being dissolved at the end of the month. The climax came with town board members and employees harshly criticizing the committee (though not the Plan) at a June 20 joint meeting of the selectmen and Board of Public Works (BoPW).
For volunteers to be publicly criticized and insulted by employees would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Town officials had questioned the committee's use of a web page and at one point last July shut it down without warning. (Part of the committee's mission is public education, which implies a web presence. A consent decree with the state requires public education on protecting the water supply.)
The committee has operated by the same rules as any other. Yet the WPC was accused of exceeding its authority. What is there about this committee and its detailed, technically oriented Plan that rubbed certain officials the wrong way?
One factor is the town's decision to consolidate several departments, including water, into a Department of Public Works two years ago. Voters who argued against the change cited the advantage of additional information being available from a water board with expertise in water, a road commission with road expertise, and so on.
The current Board of Public Works ostensibly oversees DPW Director Don Ouellette, but members have noted that they don't consider it their job to micromanage his decisions, and admit their lack of knowledge of water issues. Ouellette reports to Town Administrator Fred Turkington.
For their part, Wellhead Protection Committee members say they kept the BoPW aware of their work, but the Board never responded to written reports nor reciprocated with department memos or updates -- not even water restriction announcements.
Ouellette told an Aug. 16, 2010 meeting of the BoPW that he didn't want or need a wellhead protection committee. Its work could be done in-house, he said, and committee members could use their time to "plant vegetables."
According to sources familiar with the situation and speaking on condition of anonymity, Ouellette tried unsuccessfully to persuade a worker to write a letter expressing that view.
New "Advisory" Committee
At last Monday's meeting the selectmen voted to have the BoPW create a new "advisory" committee, meaning one on a much shorter leash.
Near the end of the BoPW session later that evening, a commissioner commented: "I'm surprised there aren't any members (of the WPC) here tonight. It's on our agenda."
"That's a step in the right direction," Ouellette remarked. Evidently nobody recognized that one WPC member was in the audience.
Chairman Jon Mishara told the selectmen's meeting, "...the most troubling development quite frankly came up at our June 6 meeting a couple of weeks ago when we learned that the WPC had submitted the Wellhead Protection Plan to the DEP without us having even having seen it."
Not true. In fact portions of a draft Plan were submitted to the DPW director at his request a month earlier in preparation for the May 10 BoPW meeting when the Board was going to meet the water superintendent for the first time. Evidently Ouellette did not share the draft with the BoPW.
The completed 124-page Plan was sent electronically by the WPC to the BoPW, Town Administrator Turkington, Selectman Joe Nolan and other town departments on June 3, in advance of the committee's June 6 presentation.
Turkington has since met with staff to discuss the Plan, without including the WPC, which never received any feedback on the Plan's content.
Though Mishara referred to other "transgressions," the June 20 discussion contained repeated criticism but no persuasive evidence of misbehavior by the committee.
Turkington criticized the WPC several times, once for recruiting candidates for vacancies. Recruiting, by the Board of Selectmen and others, is common, particularly when vacancies go unfilled for months.
The five committee members, Sherre Greenbaum (chair), Tom Sciacca, Kurt Tramposch, Linda Segal and Jennifer Riley, have extensive environmental, technical, public health, educational, and legal backgrounds. They can hardly be faulted for lack of expertise. What may set them apart in the eyes of the selectmen and the BoPW is that several of them have spoken out on a variety of town and environmental issues over the years, not always in accord with the town establishment. That tends to make the dissolution, and particularly the unprofessional style of it, look like political payback.
"Disrespectful, unprofessional treatment..."
"We are disappointed by the disrespectful and unprofessional treatment of our committee members who have dedicated so much time and effort to our mandated mission," Greenbaum told WVN. "No one on the BoS or BoPW has substantiated any allegations made against us or our work. Whoever thought that ensuring a safe and clean water supply would become politicized by the town administrator and DPW director? If they honestly wanted to suggest improvements, they would have invited us to last week's televised discussion and included us in their conversation."
Greenbaum, a lawyer who is now in a second career in landscape design, added: "Fortunately for Wayland, our town now has its first Wellhead Protection Plan, an encyclopedic yet practical tool for protecting the town's water supply. All it needs now are strong and independent advocates to implement it."
The BoPW invites public comment on the Wellhead Protection Plan for its Monday July 25 meeting. In the meantime, those interested in serving on the newadvisory committee can reach Chairman Mishara at jmishara@....
When the Department of Public Works was created, skeptics were suspicious of a power grab because authority was consolidated in fewer hands. One current issue could be an important indicator to voters of how decisions are made.
Fate of Second Reeves Hill Tank
DPW Director Ouellette informed the BoPW this spring that he wants to dismantle one of the two town water storage tanks on Reeves Hill. In 2009 the water department's consultant recommended repairing or replacing it. Recently the consultant who worked on the Wellhead Protection Plan agreed, saying that prudent risk management suggests keeping a second tank available.
When it comes to appointments, the selectmen set the tone in interviews of candidates, probing for attitudes toward the selectmen's interests. "Would you be more loyal to your board or the town?" was a typical question. (One answer -- "my client is the planet"-- was the kiss of death for one candidate for the Conservation Commission.) People with no town government experience have been readily appointed to boards and committees after demonstrating enthusiasm for the Town Center project.
Protecting the water supply would appear to be as nonpolitical as you can get. But don't count on it.
-- Michael Short
(Note: Two committee members, Tom Sciacca and Linda Segal, are WVN contributors.)
You can view the June 20 BoPW/BoS discussion of the Wellhead Protection Committee at:
Click on the 6/20/11 Selectmen's meeting, let the recording play until the dark blue line below the screen starts moving to the right. Click on that blue line, hold it down & drag it to the right to fast forward the recording. The WPC topic begins about 24 minutes into the meeting.
DISAGREEMENT OVER PLANS FOR LEE'S FARM STAND SITE
It was was billed as an informal presentation to the Conservation Commission and Planning Board of plans for the Lee's Farm Stand area on Route 20. But the June 21 meeting turned out to be a confrontation between the LEES residents' group, (Let's Encourage Environmental Sustainability) and the owners and the potential developers of an assisted living facility on that land.
LEES members, affiliated with the Pine Brook Association, have been advocating for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm on the property. To make this vision financially feasible, they expected to share the property with some other enterprise, but to keep the semi-rural aspect visible from the highway. More information about the volunteer group is at:
The Bongiorno family, owners of the defunct farm stand next to the Islamic Center, have been negotiating with the Northbridge Companies of Burlington to build an assisted living facility on the land. This two-story facility would have a footprint of 32,000 square feet and would contain 64 beds, 35 in assisted living and 29 in a secured memory unit. There would be 34 parking spaces for visitors and staff.
A sizable portion of the land is within 200 feet of a brook with a steep bank and cannot be used for building or for farming. Approximately one acre would remain for farming and half an acre for an expanded farm stand with additional parking. The assisted living facility would be towards the back of the property, which is roughly a triangle with the apex pointing north.
Background information about Northbridge is available at:
Although the developers emphasized their commitment to "maximum potential agricultural use," this is exactly the point causing the most concern to the LEES group. The major point of contention is the developer's request to split the project into two parts, to be permitted separately while sharing septic and stormwater systems. Town Planner Sarkis Sarkisian asserted that the Planning Board would rather make a comprehensive review of the entire site.
The LEES group fears that after the assisted living facility is approved with the special permit required from the ZBA, there will be few usage restrictions on the rest of the land. The developers assert that they cannot specify the exact use of the remainder until they have a user for that land.
LEES obtained an appraisal for the remainder of the land that differs from the owner's appraisals. The LEES group would like to use Community Preservation Act funds plus donations to purchase the farm stand and farm and make it a community resource. But CPA money cannot be used for a purchase price larger than the appraisal.
Kent Greenawalt of the Planning Board asserted that a new state statute says that a farm stand need not sell only produce from the associated farm as long as the produce comes from Massachusetts. The plan is to obtain a 61A (agricultural) tax exemption for the farm stand and farm using the new statute. (The old 61A exemption has already been withdrawn from the parcel in its entirety to allow for the construction of the assisted living facility.) The LEES concern is that very little produce would be grown on site and that the "farm" part of the area might be used for other purposes. This would make community involvement such as in a CSA difficult if not impossible.
The Bongiornos' plan includes a larger farm stand than the existing abandoned building, up to 4,000 square feet. When questioned about a possible restaurant on that location, developers asserted that that would not be possible without a wastewater treatment plant because the assisted living facility would be using most of the shared septic system.
Sharing septic and stormwater systems would require carefully written legal agreements to ensure that unanticipated changes would not cause legal problems for any of the stakeholders in such a mixed-use project. A citizen in the audience reported that the town continues to have problems with shared systems in other projects that end up in legal disputes costing taxpayer dollars.
Complicating matters is that Conoco Philips is cleaning the site of pollution from a defunct gasoline station across the street. That raises questions including: Will the soil be suitable for agriculture and could water drawn from that area be used for irrigation?
After hearing several questions from the audience about the cleanup, the Conservation Commission chairman told the audience where to find Department of Environmental Protection cleanup information:
The attorney representing both the Bongiornos and Northbridge indicated that a special permit application may be filed with the Zoning Board of Appeals within the next 45 days, which would trigger a public hearing. He said he has conferred with Wayland's town counsel and the health department.
-- Betty Salzberg
TOWN SEEKS VOLUNTEERS
Wayland is looking for volunteers to fill many vacancies on town boards, committees and commissions.
Officials are particularly interested in filling the five available seats on the Permanent Municipal Building Committee. Desired expertise includes construction management, civil engineering, HVAC building systems, construction law, architecture and interior design.
Wayland is planning to build a new Public Works maintenance, storage and office facility.
Interested citizens should email their interest and qualifications to selectmen@... or to Town Administrator Fred Turkington atfturkington@... by July 6.
The town website links to a
complete list of vacancies
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor