Controversies over St Marks St/pocket park project, burial plot disturbance claims, and tree clearings (past and future)

Above: The Select Board packet identifies trees (including these four) that the DPW is seeking to take down around the edges of a “pocket park” and road project adjacent to the Library and Old Burial Ground.

On Tuesday, the Select Board will hold a hearing to review trees Public Works has planned to remove to make way for an infrastructure project in process. They will also discuss the related project which has raised public concerns.

One objection was the recent clearing of several other old growth trees from property between St. Marks Street and Marlborough Road.

Other concerns raised relate to the process the Town followed for pursuing the expedited project and claims about potential harm the project could cause. Public accusations by the Chair of the Historical Commission include the flouting of multiple approval requirements, risking the disturbance of remains buried outside the Old Burial Ground, and increasing the potential of historical markers in the OBG being damaged.

Some public commenters seem to be under the impression that Southborough is clearing trees and paving paradise to put up a parking lot. It’s more complicated than that, so I’m sharing more context.

St Marks Street and Pocket Park Project

Southborough History Walk conceptAt the center of the issues is a project to reroute St Marks Street, create an adjacent public gathering space or “pocket park”, and expand St. Mark’s School’s gravel parking lot.

That project is #3 of 4 projects contracted through a combined bid this summer.

Roadway Improvement Projects Fall 2021The other projects in the bid work are (1) road reconstruction and sidewalks at downtown Main Street and Newton Street, (2) extending sidewalks on Cordaville Road to the Rural Cemetery, and (4) a long promised fix to the intersection of Deerfoot and Flagg roads.

Last year, Public Works Superintendent Karen Galligan explained to the Board that she hoped her plans to relocate the St Marks Street’s intersection with Marlborough Road (Route 85) would address multiple issues: 

  • Fix water drainage problems on the road, with frequent large puddles at the end of St Marks Street.
  • Improve the turning radius for the Town Fire trucks to access properties on Common Street (the Town House, Historical Museum, and Pilgrim Church).
  • Increase the “walkability” of the area by extending sidewalks from the Main Street Reconstruction Project to the west campus of St. Mark’s School.
  • Respond to residents’ complaints that the Main Street Reconstruction project reduced parking in the area. (Sidewalks with granite curbs replaced sloped asphalt sidewalks which were frequently, illegally, used for parking.)

While the expanded parking lot will belong to the private school, a public-private partnership would allow use by the public when not needed for school athletics/special events. Library Director Ryan Donovan told the Board that the Library’s need for extra parking is especially frequent in the summer with popular Summer Reading programs.

As for the pocket park, Galligan explained that the idea sprouted when she looked at supplemental funding options through grants. She was able to qualify for a “Shared Streets” grant from the state by adding a public gathering space that the sidewalks would lead to, increasing the walkability of the area.

The $290K grant would cover the park, the sidewalks, and drainage. (The rest of the project is through Chapter 90 funds.) The Town has been working to expedite the project in order to take advantage of the grant, which needs to be used by the end of December.

intersection of 85 and St Marks street from GIS mapsTo make the project work, St. Mark’s School agreed to allow the Town use of its triangle of land next to the Library and the Town is giving the school use of a smaller piece of land at the tip of the current intersection.

Feb 2021 conceptThe initial concept for the park included a children’s playspace and creation of a History Walk with paths leading to the Old Burial Ground, the Library, and the Town Common. 

It appears that the History Walk was removed from the project based on cost restraints.

The play space was nixed by the Select Board. Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski cautioned against building a playspace so near a busy road without adding fencing. She also opposed installing equipment within short walking distance of two existing playgrounds ( at Town Hall and Woodward School). She noted that the south side of Town only has one.

park bench conceptThe plans still include curved benches around plantings. Galligan included an example in a memo included in the Board’s meeting packet for tomorrow. You can review the full memo and attachments here.

Construction in progress (by Beth Melo)In March, the park project was in jeopardy after the bid results came back too high. Galligan perceived that the tight timeframe for the project, with the grant initially requiring completion in May, was partially to blame. After getting an extension on the grant, she was able to rebid the project. The bid was awarded in August and construction has begun.

Resulting Tree removals

Public Works had posted notice of a tree removal hearing for nine Public Shade Trees for “Road and Infrastructure Improvement” to be held on November 1st. Based on objections submitted, the decision was kicked up to the Select Board for their review.

The board’s hearing is scheduled for November 16th at 7:30 pm. In the board’s packet, only two of the trees are characterized by the DPW as already dying. The others are identified as either in the way of installing a planned re-routed road and sidewalks or ones whose root systems would be effected.

Those hearings are for the trees which haven’t already been cut. Historical Commission Chair Michael Weishan posted on the Southborough Historical Society website a letter he sent to a slew of Town (and state) officials objecting to the Town’s actions. In his letter, he warned:

the clear-cutting of century-old woodland has now destroyed the windbreak for the trees in the Old Burial Ground, which were already in extremely precarious condition. With this protection removed, the OBG trees will now be highly susceptible to storm damage, which in turn risks the historic markers below. On behalf of the Historic Commission, I have formally objected to the removal of any further trees on the site, in particular those along Marlborough Road.

Additionally, I would strongly advise the Board of Selectmen to work with the Historical Commission to fund an emergency professional tree survey of the Old Burial Ground with the idea of assessing the state of the remaining specimens, and doing any required pruning or removal before the onset of the winter storm season, in order to mitigate further damage to the burial stones. Long-term, there needs to be a proactive tree and marker restoration plan with sufficient annual funding to preserve the integrity of our most precious historical asset.

Below are a couple of photos from his SHS post, plus one of my own:

From Weishan SHS letter clearing photo  Intersection before and after

In follow up communications with Town officials, he questioned the Town allowing the contractor to potentially profit from the lumber of felled trees.

An objection to the proposed tree removals was also submitted by Margarite Landry. She noted that she was submitting it as an individual resident, not in her position as Chair of the Board of Library Trustees. However, she relayed concerns related to the Library. Asking for more details on the park plan, she wrote:

There is a concern that tree removal and increased paving will impact ground water [absorption] and lead to increased water flow to the library, which has been subject to frequent flooding. In addition, there is a concern that Library parking may be impacted.

You can read the Tree hearing materials here.

Additional Project and Process Concerns

Weishan’s public letters didn’t just object to the tree removals. Asking for the Town to halt the project, he also raised concerns about the possible disturbance of old remains:

Had the Commission been consulted before construction began, we would have again warned the Board of Selectmen that previous ground radar surveys have indicated numerous colonial-era interments outside of the current Old Burial Ground (OBG) walls. Additionally, the wooded parcel that was cleared last week was also the most likely location of the original pre-contact Native American burial ground. Further soil disturbance so close to the OBG risks disinterment of human remains.

According to Weishan, at their November 4th meeting, the Commission supported his decision to notify the Massachusetts Historical Commission of potential disruptions to graves along the margins of the Old Burial Ground. His draft minutes state they were also “unanimous in the condemnation of the project currently underway.”

In a March Historical Commission meeting, Weishan had asked Galligan for an update on the project. She shared that it was in flux due to the high bid results and tight grant timeframe. She wasn’t sure it would go forward. At that time, Weishan enthusiastically supported the concept with the proposed a History Walk. He expressed hope that it could move forward. No worries about possible downsides of the project were raised.

I reached out to Weishan for clarity on his claim that the Historical Commission had previously warned the selectmen about the remains, and the fact that it wasn’t raised in March. He asserted that when his Commission had asked the Board last spring to address their concerns about flags in the Old Burial Ground, they stated that the ground radar “had shown considerable burials outside the current walls.” 

As for their past support of the project, he explained:

Yes, we were excited about the history walk aspect of it, and presumed once the funding came through, we would be consulted as to exactly where and how this walk would go. We were only shown a preliminary plan that listed several options including a park with no details. It’s critical to note that this project should have had [Mass Historical Commission] approval, which would have then put the [Southborough Historical Society] in the drivers seat in terns of guiding the final design. But it didn’t get that required clearance, we were never notified, and our first inkling of what was happening is when the trees were going down.

MHC isn’t the only approval that Weishan asserts the Board should have sought. He also believes they needed site plan approval from the Planning Board and approval from Southborough Town Meeting voters on the easements for the project. You can read his full letter along with photos in his post on the SHS website here

The Select Board has rejected Weishan’s claims.

Last December, Galligan told the Board that because of the parking lot element, some permitting and site plan approval would be required. She stated that they would need Planning on Board. But at no point was the project on a Planning Board agenda.

At their November 3rd meeting, Chair Lisa Braccio stated that Town Counsel assured they were in the right and Site Plan Approvals weren’t required. In an apparent reference to Weishan’s request for the Town to stop the project based on the potential of disturbing remains, Braccio stated that there “no proof” had been provided of a need for the project to stop. 

In a subsequent email from Town Administrator Mark Purple, he responded to Weishan’s claims about voters’ required involvement:

The Board of Selectmen and St. Mark’s School have agreed to exchange easements for the work being done. Since easements need to be approved by Town Meeting, Town Counsel has prepared a Reciprocal License for both parties to sign so that the work can proceed. There is land owned by the Town as well that is involved in the project.

That agreement is on the agenda to be approved at this meeting.

Select Board member Marty Healey objected to public intimations about lack of transparency on the project. He said there were 8-9 public meetings on the topic. But it is worth noting that the agenda item and minutes header rarely made the topic clear. Agenda listings tended to refer to it as Shared Streets grant or Chapter 90 project.

The only reference made in public meetings to trees was in February when Healey provided an update without Galligan present. Braccio stated that she would want to follow up with Galligan about old growth trees to learn which ones might need to come down. Healey responded that while that was a “Karen question” he was under the impression that the project would try to work around trees as much as possible. The topic wasn’t raised again in subsequent meetings.

Updated (11/16/21 1:33 pm): Thanks to DPW Superintendent Karen Galligan for sharing the full plans. Those are in the linked document starting on page 84.

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You Don't Know What You've Got Til It's Gone
2 years ago

Thanks for the summary, Beth.

I can see moving St. Mark’s Street over. I can see St. Mark’s wanting more parking. But this proposed park is a gross, mass-produced design. It doesn’t fit Southborough. It’s an urban park. It will look ridiculous.
More important, the indigenous peoples’ burial sites are all around that area. It is important to locate where the Nipmuc graves are, are make sure they are not desecrated.
The BOS should consult with Cheryll Holley, the Chief of the Hassanmisco Band of Nipmuc Nation, and the Tribal Council before the town destroys the burial sites irretrievably. That would be a tragedy. What is the rush to get a park put in?
The Dec. 31 deadline holds if you just do the road and sidewalk. Hold off on the park.
Do it right.

Respect the Nipmuc History and People
2 years ago

This is what comes from unbelievable lack of due diligence, profoundly bad and wrong legal advice, personal animosities, and stupid squabbling interfering with what should be sound judgment and a pause in construction activity to check out in some professional manner first the overriding concern: potential cemetery desecration. How illogical and ridiculous to seek “proof” first. Really?? “Proof” on an unmarked, but documented,1600s Native American burial ground? The only way to prove this is to carefully look. The State archeologist / Mass Historical Commission has issued a warning letter, you horses rear ends! Not good enough? The Town’s own history book and other sources clearly indicate this triangle as a very likely location. Just look the other way? Those clear cut trees may well have been growing out of composted graves. According to a 2006 Boston Globe article, over 1,000 persons are believed to be buried there, many in unmarked graves.

Since when is DPW a developer? DPW dreamed up this entire development scheme? Or did DPW have a little help? A few public records requests can straighten those facts out. Bottom line? This isn’t a license agreement. In spite of the “label” or title of the document, that’s a fallacy. A major legal error. A major screw up. That puts the town at risk. And may well destroy instead of preserve important essential history. Doesn’t anyone care?

All of this starts and ends with the law. Read it. Here’s the upshot: Per legal experts, BOS and DPW has ZERO legal authority to make the decision about these easements. Full stop. Only the voters have the legal authority to grant these uses. This matter does go before town meeting floor. And before any shovel hits the ground.

Rest assured, if there are attorneys involved, and if any attorney thinks they are going to hide behind an attorney’s license and propagate illegal activities, guess again. In the meantime, this BOS needs to understand that egregious legal errors have been made and hit the pause button until it has a grasp on how bad this really is. For goodness sake, fire bad counsel immediately and get competent legal advice! In the meantime, everyone, all residents, should weigh in and care about the main point: furiously digging excavators aren’t looking for proof of graves. Public outrage should be enough to compel BOS and DPW to hit the pause button to make sure that mistakes are not being made.

Stop Meddling
2 years ago

This project is great for the town. This intersection is badly in need of repair, the sidewalks will benefit the whole town and increase walkability and there’s a major drainage issue here, also it will help prevent so many cars from parking on 85 which creates a different set of problems. This project will fix the drainage issues which will benefit the library and better connect the stormwater system directing runoff away from the library. The historical society needs to take a back seat and focus their efforts on better causes like not opening the town up to lawsuits over faux power. The couple trees involved in this project are minimal at best and new mature tree plantings should be part of the project. This project is using grant money that expires soon and our real estate tax dollars aren’t involved. It’s time we stop asking for consultants and surveys and instead let our ELECTED board make some timely decisions to best utilize available funds and prevent our tax bills from further going up.
2 years ago
Reply to  Stop Meddling

Inappropriately defensive “stop meddling”. This is all about sewers, and development. Who are you kidding. Ironically, it is the town that appears to have allegedly opened the door of risk to the town. How? By concocting an easement agreement, that falls under the title of “license”, allegedly inappropriately. Everyone opposing out of control government, should look at this “license” agreement. It appears that the BOS has just usurped voter authority, that belongs to the tax payers. This entire issue should have been presented to the tax payers at Special Town Meeting on Nov 1. No excuses. Shocked and disappointed at our elected officials.

Smarty Rants
2 years ago
Reply to  Stop Meddling

To Stop Meddling, your points lack common sense and lead to more questions than answers, so stop your own snarky false advertising. How does Historical take a back seat when this development was applied for and grant funds awarded for a History Walk? According to Ms. Galligan, the town (who?) applied for grants for various purposes, then most of those purposes were dropped? Including one of the very purposes of the grant, the walk? What about all the lost trees? Doesn’t a park need trees? Surely some of those old growth trees could have been tagged and saved? What about all the unanswered questions? Questions ignored and left dangling at this past Tuesday’s BOS meeting? Why are taxpayer funded grants, public monies, being used for parking lot for St. Marks School, a private owner that pays no taxes? BTW, the chair of the trustees of the library apparently didn’t know what was going on until the site behind the library was clear cut by DPW Karen Galligan, when all the trees were razed. So much for public awareness and knowledge. Ms. Galligan, completely conceived and executed on her own, this entire grant and development? With no direction or discussion from others in town government? Who applied for the grant? Who decided what the money would go for? When was the History Walk dropped? Who gave notice to the public that the money would not go for the purposes applied for? So Stop Meddling: When was the Historical Commission given notice that there would no longer be a History Walk? When was the announcement to the public that there money was no longer going towards the uses stated in the application? BOS needs to answer these questions.

Respect the Nipmuc History and People
2 years ago

Who approached St. Marks to do this land use swap? Who and when?
Where are the VOTES and Minutes authorizing same?

Where are the SIGNED agreements? There are ZERO executed agreements in the BOS agenda packet (tonight’s 11-16-21), LINK in article above.

This whole development has been undertaken without signed agreements?? The “Reciprocal Interim License Agreement” buried in tonight’s BOS agenda packet is unsigned. The DPW memos are both very recently dated, within days of each other, November 2 and 10. Is this a scheme of “catch up” after the fact, and unbelievably AFTER construction has started? How does a clear cutting of a site and major development happen with no signed agreements in place? WTH? If there are signed agreements, these need to be posted publicly immediately for public review and comment.

Respect the Nipmuc History and People
2 years ago

Where exactly are the VOTES in which minutes available to the public LEGALLY AUTHORIZING this development to be done? Exactly what date and can the link be provided.

As much as the above is somewhat helpful, the entire response lacks or ignores the fact that the actual construction has started WITHOUT any signed agreements.

As for “Stop Meddling” what a patronizing, sarcastic, and unprofessional tone. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, state law must be understood and followed. The residents of this town have an interest and absolute right to ask questions about matters of a public interest in their own town. If certain parties have NO LEGAL AUTHORITY, and the town meeting floor does, that is important to know. This is an open democracy governed by Open Meeting and other state laws. Our veterans died to build upon principles of open government and free speech.

You Don't Know What You've Got Til It's Gone
2 years ago

The big trees are down, it’s too late to do anything to bring them back.

Can we put together a better-looking park than the one proposed? We need it to be ADA compliant, and also it should be inviting and beautiful. The current version is not rural or beautiful, Even DPW doesn’t know what they are doing there.

There’s all this rush to get it done before Dec. 31, like that’s a drop dead date, so we must accept what plan is being shoved down our throats.

It’s a town park, the town residents should have something to say about what they want in their town!!

John Kendall
2 years ago

I am totally against this project. I have a park just down the street from me in Cordaville. Other than mowing, the town doesn’t do much to maintain it. There was a collapse in the walkway that was repaired after I notified the DPW. The benches are filthy, nobody picks up the trash that accumulates. Aside from that, this new park going in at St. Mark’s Street required a number of shade trees to be removed. And as illustrated on old town maps, and as I learned from Mr. McFarland at Woodward Middle School, there is a Nipmuc burial ground in that area. A disgrace. I used to be proud to say I was from Southborough, but I’m having second thoughts.
2 years ago

Simply said. The decisions BOS and Zoning, in particular make, have nothing to do with benefitting residents/taxpayers in this town. It all has to do with developers. If you don’t like these decisions, stop electing these people, who frankly have their own interests at stake. When was Ms. Galligan appointed to make all these decisions. She is Public Works, and nothing more. Southborough wake up. You’ve been had once again.

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