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Norman rewrites wetland ordinance

Before public hearing has even taken place, Town Council committee presents big box opponent’s revision of Conservation Commission proposal

Al Norman
Recorder file photo

Al Norman Recorder file photo

Editor's note: Watch a recording of Monday's Appointments & Ordinances Committee meeting, courtesy of Greenfield Community Television. The discussion about proposed changes to a wetland protection law begins around the 30:30 mark in this video.

GREENFIELD — It appears a Town Council committee has created a new process, allowing a known sprawlbuster to “sit at the table” as it begins its review of proposed changes to a wetland protection law that could end up blocking some development down the road.

According to Appointments and Ordinances Chairman David Singer, allowing Albert Norman, the Greenfield resident known nationally as a sprawlbuster, to make comments on and rewrite the Conservation Commission’s proposed ordinance before a public hearing is held, is legitimate.

“He lives in Greenfield and has every right to come forward to discuss any matter at any time,” said Singer, who is a former Town Council president.

What Norman did, though, was more than just discuss issues surrounding wetland protection — instead, he offered his own version of the draft ordinance, making more than a dozen amendments. At Monday night’s public meeting, the committee presented the draft of the proposed ordinance that had been edited by Norman. It’s not clear yet if Norman’s take on the ordinance will get a public hearing.

His revisions include removing a waiver that allows the town’s Conservation Commission to waive certain procedures, design specifications, performance standards or other requirements for a project if there is an overriding public interest to do so.

His suggestions would eliminate replication of a wetland and would only allow alterations to a wetland as a last resort.

According to Norman’s rewrite, the commission would not be able to hire a consultant who had been retained by a current applicant (developer) within the previous five years.

He also added that not only abutters would have to be notified by certified mail when a developer applied for a wetland permit, but abutters of abutters.

Most of the revisions are arguments Norman made when he presented his case before the Conservation Commission while representing the abutters who oppose the big box development, most recently the project on French King Highway.

“I learned the commission had done a rewrite of the ordinance and I decided to submit my own,” said Norman, who said it was a surprise to him that the commission had rewritten the wetlands protection ordinance.

“There’s still a long process to go, so I don’t see what the problem is,” said Norman. “Everyone who wants will have their say.”

The problem, according to some town leaders, is that the process the town typically follows when it comes to writing or rewriting an ordinance was not followed.

It starts with, for instance, the commission in this case, which spent the last two and a half years rewriting its ordinance and last fall submitted it to the Town Council, which then sent it to Appointments and Ordinances, as part of the process.

Typically, the committee reviews a proposed ordinance, holds a public hearing, where it receives public oral and written input, makes its own changes and then sends it back to the committee where the proposal originated.

In this case, Norman’s revisions are being considered before the committee’s public hearing.

If the commission approves the committee’s changes, it goes to Town Council for a vote. If approved by the council, it becomes law.

Allowing Norman to submit comments before anyone else from the public has left members of the commission, as well as the mayor, confused and, in some cases, angry.

“If this were to be deemed to have been an instance of trying to circumvent the public hearing process, it would be a problem,” said Mayor William Martin, adding that he doesn’t know anything about the matter, but intends to look into it. “That would clearly not be in the best interest of the town.”

Martin said it would be the second time in a few short months that the committee presented changes to a proposed ordinance to the public without any warning. Several months ago, Appointments and Ordinances presented changes to a proposed ordinance concerning Native American burial grounds without informing the public first.

Conservation Commission members said they did not learn that Norman had rewritten their hard work or had gone before the Town Council committee until the night after it happened.

They said they found out from commission Chairman Alex Haro in an email that he had been invited to the committee meeting on Feb. 10 and learned there that Norman had made changes to the commission’s draft.

Haro could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

“I’m irate,” said commission member Timothy Mosher.

He said Norman claims he is making the changes as a concerned citizen, but cannot have it both ways.

“He is representing people who are suing the town over the big box project,” said Mosher. “He is part of a special interest group and a town committee should not be showing favoritism to a special interest group — it would be like the EPA asking Exxon for input on a new regulation.”

“This is a disgrace to pull these shenanigans,” said Mosher. “The process has been tainted.”

Commission member Thomas DeHoyos said he agrees with Mosher.

“Seems like someone was given a privileged opportunity before the rest of the public,” said DeHoyos. “It’s an affront to every citizen in Greenfield and to the commission.”

DeHoyos said the only time the commission asks for or accepts input from someone else before a public hearing has been held is when it is looking for the opinion of an expert.

“I am an expert on the town’s conservation laws,” said Norman. “I know more about this ordinance than most of the commissioners do. I have read it, studied it and lived it. No one cares about it or understands it like I do.”

Norman said he spent hours reviewing the town’s conservation laws during his fight against the big box project proposed for French King Highway, including his fight for the area now known as “Wetland 4.”

John Blasiak, another commissioner, said he doesn’t know all of the details but “why would a board choose to receive public input outside of a public hearing?”

Norman said he appeared before Appointments and Ordinances earlier this week because he was asked to by Singer, not because he wanted to.

“I would have been happy to stay home,” said Norman. “The committee could have taken my comments and presented them as its own, but it chose to be open and transparent.”

Norman said because the committee is not at the point of adding its comments or rewriting the proposed ordinance, he doesn’t see a problem with the public, including himself, becoming involved, even if it is outside of a public hearing.

He said Greenfield residents should be more involved in the process of writing and rewriting their own laws.

Singer said he thought it was a good idea to hear from both Haro and Norman as the committee moved ahead with the proposed ordinance and began to plan for a public hearing.

“I think we were being transparent,” said Singer. “We didn’t deny or deprive anyone of being able to do the same as Al.”

Singer said if hundreds of residents wanted to submit comments or rewrites on any proposed ordinance before a public hearing was held, he would allow it to happen.

“I would find a way,” he said.

He said Norman did not receive special treatment.

“All proposed ordinance drafts are available to anyone and everyone,” said Singer. “Anyone may make changes and submit them and we will take them under consideration.”

Singer said receiving Norman’s rewrite does not mean the committee will vote his proposed changes.

“We will have a public hearing and everyone who wants will have a chance to share their ideas and comments,” said Singer.

When asked why Norman wasn’t asked to wait until the public hearing, Singer said he thought it was better to bring him in at the drafting stage.

“He is a powerful force around development and this is a development ordinance,” said Singer. “Like it or not, Al is a big player in town with a lot of power, but he is not the ultimate antagonist as some believe. I wanted to pull him into the process.”

Singer said what Norman proposed may never be included in the ordinance.

“If people don’t like what he added and we don’t like what he added, it won’t happen,” said Singer, who said he would like to see residents become as interested and involved as Norman.

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