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Singer goes to Con Comm to explain controversial move

GREENFIELD — When David Singer went before the Conservation Commission to discuss why he allowed the Greenfield man who has led opposition to big box development for more than 20 years and fought Greenfield’s wetlands rules in the process present his own version of the commission’s rewrite of those rules before a public hearing was scheduled, he said he wanted to make it clear that he never meant to disrespect commission members, but will continue to defend his decision.

Singer, Precinct 5 councilor and chairman of the council’s Appointments and Ordinances Committee, which allowed Albert Norman an early “seat at the table,” said he wanted to hear from the big box foe early in the game so everyone would know where he stood on the issue.

“I meant no disrespect, but I don’t regret inviting Al to the meeting,” said Singer. “It was useful and productive to hear his point of view. Now, the public knows where Al stands.”

Singer, well-known for his role as a mediator, has received some criticism from several town leaders, commission members and residents for allowing Norman, known nationally as a “sprawl-buster,” to present his red-line version of the recently rewritten wetlands ordinance proposed by the Conservation Commission.

The Appointments and Ordinances leader said he did not do anything underhanded by allowing Norman to speak.

“I have always allowed anyone and everyone to speak at my meetings,” said Singer, who agreed to chair the committee after former Precinct 2 Councilor Keith Zaltzberg resigned from the council late last year. “I would have been doing something underhanded if I had taken Al’s rewrite and presented it as my own.”

Singer said there were no laws broken when he allowed Norman to speak at a public meeting on Feb. 10.

“He was going to present his rewrite one way or the other,” said Singer. “Now we know what we’re dealing with as we go into a public hearing later this month.”

Commission member Thomas DeHoyos told Singer at a special meeting of the commission earlier this week that it doesn’t “feel or sound right” that Norman was allowed to inject himself into the process of rewriting a town ordinance.

“I feel special privilege was afforded a private citizen whose laser focus is so much on his own cause that he can’t see the other side,” said DeHoyos.

He said allowing Norman to speak was an affront to a five-member commission that took 2 1/ 2 years to rewrite the wetlands law.

Commission member John Blasiak said he wondered why Norman’s revisions weren’t first presented to the commission for comment, before being allowed to be presented to the council committee and the public.

“I guess I missed what it feels like to live in your world,” said Singer as he apologized for not informing commission members or the public in a timely manner about Norman’s invitation by Singer to appear before the council committee.

“If I had it to do all over, I would have still invited Al, but I would have made sure you were all invited and had the opportunity to be there,” said Singer.

He said people need to separate their personal feelings about Norman from the process.

“No harm was done to the process,” said Singer. “We are now going to go to public hearing later this month and we’re going to find out how anyone who wants us to know feels.”

Singer said he plans on scheduling a public hearing on the matter by the end of March or beginning of April. He asked the commission that all of its members be there.

Most commission members said they’d feel more comfortable receiving questions from Appointments and Ordinances after the public hearing so that it could answer them as a board and return with answers and explanations.

When Singer said he would like commissioners to “defend (their) rewrite,” most of them became visibly irritated and insulted.

“I feel like I just wasted 2 1/ 2 years,” said commission Vice President Timothy Mosher. “We took an existing ordinance that hadn’t been updated in a decade and we updated it according to state and Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commission guidelines. We all did lots of homework and our due diligence.”

Mosher said updating the town’s wetlands laws is not just about a big box development on French King Highway, but will affect homeowners, residents, businesses, other developers, large and small, and more.

“The process has been contaminated,” said Mosher, referring to Norman’s involvement. “I find that offensive and so do many others.”

Mosher said now the public will be looking at the town’s existing law, the commission’s rewrite, and Norman’s red-lined version.

“This is going to become a ‘he said, she said,’” said Mosher.

Singer said he only used the word “defend,” because he feels that as a town leader he needs to and should defend every decision he makes.

“I guess a better word would be ‘explain,’” said Singer. “I think the public would like the commission to explain why it made the changes it did. You have all been living these laws for many years, but this is the first most of us are hearing of them.”

Singer said Appointments and Ordinances will hold the public hearing, where it will collect public comment. It will deliberate and ask the commission for answers and guidance before sending its recommendation to the full council.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the council to write or amend ordinances and then vote them into law.

“I work for the people and the commission works for the people,” said Singer. “This ordinance is theirs, not ours.”

Impacts on wetlands and traffic are common concerns raised by foes of large-scale development like Norman, who raised wetlands concerns when the Home Depot was proposed for the Mohawk Trail, and again when a big box retail store was proposed for French King Highway.

Norman said in a recent interview that he is concerned with wetlands laws specifically to stop big box development.

The commission said it rewrote the local wetlands laws with the intention of tightening them up by providing clarity and stronger definitions.

Norman said he went a few steps further by removing a controversial waiver that allows the commission flexibility in its decision and restricts the replication of wetlands.

Singer said he will announce the date of the Appointments and Ordinances public hearing as soon as it is set.

“I want to give people, everyone, plenty of time to plan,” said Singer. “I would like to see lots of people come to the hearing and voice their concerns and opinions. The committee would like as much info as possible from all sides of the issue.”

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