Council to take time on burial proposal

GREENFIELD — It appears the Town Council may not vote in November on an ordinance that would protect Native American burial and reburial sites throughout Greenfield, because the councilors who helped draft it say there’s been enough interest and concern voiced that they’d like to spend a little more time talking with the community about it.

Precinct 5 Councilor David Singer, who helped rewrite the ordinance originally presented by Native American activist and Greenfield resident Howard Clark, said he believes the council needs to “take a step back” and look at the ordinance more closely.

Some town officials and the town’s lawyer said the original ordinance, written by Clark, was too broad and left too many issues to interpretation.

Some town officials believe the rewritten ordinance is still too broad and could potentially stall or block future development, especially along French King Highway.

“The way it is written, it appears there’s really no purpose for it,” said Eric Twarog, the town’s director of planning and development.

Twarog said at closer read, the words “jurisdiction” and “not limited to” leave the ordinance open to interpretation and could block development of certain projects.

Singer said he helped Clark by rewriting the proposed ordinance with Precinct 2 Councilor and Appointments and Ordinances Chairman Keith Zaltzberg because Clark wants to protect the White Ash Swamp, which is the 10 acres the developer of a planned discount department store on French King Highway has promised to put in a conservation restriction so that it would never be developed.

Singer said because the ordinance has gotten so much attention, he wants to see it go to the town’s lawyer for guidance.

“The council shouldn’t be in charge of this,” said Singer. “I think we need to slow things down. I don’t think we should take a vote in November.”

The council originally planned to discuss and vote on the ordinance during its Nov. 20 meeting. Appointments and Ordinances recently voted to send a positive recommendation to the full council.

Zaltzberg and fellow committee members Precinct 1 Councilor Marian Kelner, Precinct 6 Councilor Karen “Rudy” Renaud, and Precinct 7 Councilor Karen Shapiro Miller all recommended the ordinance. Singer, who is the fifth member of the committee, was absent the night of that vote.

“I think there have been a lot of good questions raised and a lot of good comments,” said Singer. “More needs to be done on this.”

Zaltzberg agreed on Thursday that some of the wording of the ordinance may still need to be “tightened up” and the “language may need to be cleaned up,” though he said it is a good ordinance and said he would like to see it passed before the first of the year.

“This ordinance is not trying to stop development,” said Zaltzberg. “We are just echoing what the state and federal governments already have jurisdiction over. We just want to be able, as a town, to tell the state and federal governments that we want them to do something if ever bones are found on a development site.”

While Zaltzberg said it is true that the ordinance would probably affect the eastern side of town along the French King Highway more than any other area, because of known Native American activity there hundreds of years ago, he said he does not believe it was written to block the department store planned for that area.

“We want a local representative to be able to go to the table if there are ever any questions about some area in town,” said Zaltzberg. “That’s the biggest thing.”

But, when asked about the wording of the ordinance, especially the paragraph that says a “known place where American Indian remains have been buried or reburied ... shall be accorded the treatment and protections specified by federal and state laws, including, but not limited to, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and a section of the National Historic Preservation Act,” he said it should be tightened, because that might leave too much to interpretation.

Zaltzberg said the council he sits on has passed many resolutions and ordinances, which might not have changed much, but were done as a statement and nothing else.

“We want more marginalized groups, like Native Americans, to know we hear them and will do what we can to help,” said Zaltzberg.

“We aren’t creating any new laws with this new ordinance,” he said. “I don’t feel personally that it has much to do with the big box development (on French King) except its location,” said Zaltzberg.

He said that the ordinance would back up state and federal law, so if bones are ever found anywhere in Greenfield, the town could go to the state and ask it to follow through according to its laws.

“We just want a reminder that people need to abide by the laws already in place,” said Zaltzberg.

Clark said he originally wrote the ordinance to protect the White Ash Swamp. He said he did not help with the rewrite.

“I wanted an ordinance that was stronger than the state’s law on Native American burial grounds, because I wanted to make sure White Ash was protected forever,” said Clark. “The state law is just too weak. I thought writing an ordinance at the city level would be the first step to changing the state law.”

The developer who plans to build a big box department store on 17 acres on French King Highway agreed several years ago to preserve the 10-acre swamp, because it is largely covered by wetlands and is undeveloped and may have archaeological significance in relation to a North American native burying ground.

The Friends of Wissatinnewag Inc., which Clark co-founded, fought to have the 10-acre swamp protected.

Clark’s earlier draft of the ordinance said, “The Town of Greenfield designates any known place where American Indian remains have been buried or reburied as an American Indian Burial Ground.”

The ordinance, after Singer’s and Zaltzberg’s changes, now says the town will recognize, not designate.

There have been some questions about whether the ordinance that will be presented to the full council, as rewritten, might cause problems specifically for the big box project that has already been approved for the adjacent 17 acres to the swamp on French King Highway.

The project has been appealed and is waiting for a Housing Court judge to make her decision. If she decides the project is OK as is, councilors believe it would be grandfathered and that the ordinance would not affect the project.

But, it appears that there could be problems if the project is sent back to the town’s Planning Board to be reviewed from scratch or to review parts of it. Then, the question is whether it would be considered an entirely new project and would therefore have to comply with the ordinance if someone felt the archaeological significance of the site extended outside of the White Ash Swamp and onto the 17 acres.

There is also a question about what would happen if the ordinance is passed and later the current developer of the adjacent 17 acres to the swamp decides to sell the property. Would the new owner and any project that might be brought before the town in the future for that property be affected by the new ordinance?

The proposed ordinance also requires that as soon as human remains of Native American and/or a Native American burial ground is discovered and reported, a local advocate for Native Americans shall be immediately appointed by the mayor and Narragansett Indian Tribe.

That advocate would have local jurisdiction over and participate with others having jurisdiction in the enforcement of state and federal laws relating to the treatment and protection of American Indian burial grounds within the town.

The new ordinance also says that it is not intended to supersede, modify, alter, change or enlarge any existing ordinance, zoning bylaw or state and federal law.

Town Council will discuss the issue on Nov. 20. The meeting begins at 7 p.m., but it is not yet clear what time the discussion will begin. The meeting will be held in the Greenfield Community Television studio, 393 Main St.

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