St Mark’s St & Park: New strategy, Working Group charge to be revised tonight

Above: The Select Board is revisiting the controversial road and park project with hopes of swapping land ownership rather than easements. In the shorter term, they’ll vote on expanding the membership and scope of the Working Group to make improved recommendations for the park. (image cropped from Town materials this spring.)

Tonight, the Select Board will vote on revising the charge for the St. Mark’s Street Working Group. It is part of the Board’s revised strategy on how to move forward on a controversial project.

Two weeks ago, the Board agreed to hold off work on the road and park while an archeological survey is conducted. In the meantime, they will seek to negotiate a related land ownership swap with St. Mark’s School.

What remains unclear is what the Town will do about the incomplete road before Special Town Meeting (scheduled for October 13th) if the survey gives them an all clear.

As I’ve previously posted, Annual Town Meeting voted down granting an easement swap between the Town and St. Mark’s School. Voters made clear at multiple point in the meeting that they were angered by the Town’s handling of the project.

At the May 5th meeting it was unclear how the Board would proceed if the easements were voted down. Prior to the vote, the Board claimed that a legal agreement in place would allow them to complete the road regardless. 

(Several voters did question that position given wording about this spring’s Town Meeting vote. Others questioned the legality of using a temporary agreement for work done prior to Town Meeting granting easements.)

On May 31st, for the first time since that meeting, the Board discussed how to address the incomplete project.

Members agreed that work on the park would be paused until the archeological survey is completed. (That’s the work that St. Mark’s announced in mid-May it would pay for to have specialists examine if there is evidence of indigenous burials on the site.)

Initially, members had clear discomfort and lack of consensus about how to handle the road portion of the project. (The path is carved out, gravel laid, drainage cemented, but the road is still unbuilt.)

The Board was told the contractor would be flexible about allowing change orders, a pause on the project, or being paid out for just the work completed.

Member Andrew Dennington suggested they try to negotiate a land ownership swap. He believed it would be better received by voters who objected to building public projects on land owned by the private school. The board had argued that swapped easements would give the Town an interest in the land. At their last meeting, Dennington said that a land swap’s additional benefits include that it’s irrevocable.

Fellow members agreed. But the question remained whether to green light completing the roadwork or to wait for a completed swap.

Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski worried about the impact of not completing the road under the current bid agreement. Based on past bids, it could mean a future choice between leaving an eyesore or paying a lot more to fix it.

A public comment from Historical Chair Kevin Miller reframed the Board’s thinking. He pointed out that the a survey to be conducted in the park could lead the state to require a study of the land under the planned roadway. 

Miller explained that the survey has state oversight. He hopes the survey will determine that any evidence of graves discovered are only near the existing walls of the Old Burial Ground. But if the expert’s findings are that there is evidence to compel surveying land to the north, the Town would have to comply even if they already laid pavement.

The Historical Chair recommended they wait at least until the 6-8 week survey is complete. He couldn’t give an answer on when that would be. But he did share that the school had shown real interest in getting it done as soon as possible. (The last he knew they were waiting on a state permit.)

Miller was just one of several commenters on the project. Others included two members of the Working Group with concerns similar to Miller’s. They were both pleased to hear the board’s decision to revisit their charge.

The Board agreed that the charge should be rewritten to take a broader look at the park project. The initial charge had limited them to what would be placed in the innermost circle. As Dennington, the Board’s representative on the Group noted, their mission had already creeped past that. The Group will also add specific representatives for different stakeholders.

Dennington planned to bring a revised charge for the Board to consider at tonight’s meeting. The packet includes the recommendation that in addition to the seven at-large members, the group include one member each from the Historical Commission and the Open Space Preservation Commission.

There was also public discussion about stakeholders including a representative from the Library, SPAC (Southborough Public Accessibility Committee), and St. Mark’s. It’s likely those aren’t specified because the previously appointed at-large members already check those boxes. (In terms of St. Mark’s, that takes the form of a current student.)

It’s worth noting that first charge the Board considered when they established the Working Group included specific stakeholder groups. Then-Select Board Marty Healey pitched replacing those with fresh voices through at-large members. The Board agreed.

At that time, the Historical Commission was chaired by Michael Weishan. Weishan had spearheaded public outcry against the project, both objecting to the razing of trees and raising the possibility of indigenous burials.

The revised mission changes consideration of the circle to “generate a recommendation to the Select Board regarding the design and themes for the proposed park”.

There still isn’t a clear answer about how the Board will proceed if it gets an all clear from the archeological survey.

It appeared that most members were considering resuming completion of the road portion of the project prior to the next Town Meeting. (Earlier that night the Board scheduled the Special Town Meeting for October 13th.)

Member Lisa Braccio noted there were still legal questions about when to bring the road plan before the Planning Board.

Later, Planning member Debbie DeMuria said that the road also hadn’t gone in front of the Conservation Commission. She explained the Town’s ability to waive that requirement didn’t apply since the road is planned on land currently owned by St. Mark’s.

It seemed that the Board was leaning towards proceeding with roadwork prior to the meeting to save costs. The Board’s hope appeared to be that new park project details would gain voter support. (As Dennington noted, the Board didn’t present a park plan to voters.)

That would risk alienating Town Meeting voters who voiced opposition to bypassing their authority over easements.

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Al Hamilton
9 months ago

I hope that the SB realizes that the vote against the easements by Town Meeting was overwhelming. If the SB were to do anything more before securing the approval of Town Meeting it would only be waving a red flag in front of the bull.

My understanding is that at some point a real estate transfer will have to occur and it cannot occur unless there is a 2/3 vote of TM. I think the folks I know on the board are smart enough to recognize that thumbing their nose at TM is not a good strategy for securing approval.

My recommendation is, don’t spend another nickel on the project or move a shovel full of dirt until the SB comes before TM and secures all the necessary approvals. The SB should show respect for TM if it wants it in return. To do otherwise is to invite citizens petitions designed to express displeasure in substantive terms. 200 signatures would not be hard to raise on this issue.

Pick Pocket Park and No Legal Authority
9 months ago

The current “license” is NOT a license. It has no legal effect. It is a phony document with a phony title that was a sham attempt to cover over egregious illegal spending and misconduct. It was signed by the BOS AFTER digging up the site, after removal of trees at taxpayers expense on private property.

The TOWN Meeting floor vote was unanimous. This BOS has no legal authority to proceed with anything. Only the voters grant authority. This BOS answers to the voters, since the voters alone grant legal authority. It was not granted.

WHAT THE HECK IS A POCKET PARK? WHO PROPOSED THIS PARK? WHAT IS ITS PURPOSE and WHY IS IT NEEDED? The town has spent its entire road budget for the year on private property, while CLOSED roads need repairs. This is off budget and this is frivolous misguided unauthorized spending.

Is this park a fake straw for the real purpose? Infrastructure? Sewer sleeves? All done before the November 1 zoning change?

Al is right on this. NOT ONE MORE CENT. And in his hilarious words of wisdom, when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. This is and remains PRIVATE property. The road and the $20,000 of gravel that taxpayers had ripped unknowingly out of their pockets may lie on HUMAN BURIALS. THIS taxpayer wants the money back. NOT a cover up and clean up. NOT the taxpayers obligation in the least. This is the private property owners problem.

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