What is motivation behind burial ground ordinance proposal?
Recorder file photo The area known as White Ash Swamp, in the lower left side of the photo, is part of the original Mackin property that is slated for development of a big box store along the French King Highway in Greenfield. White Ash Swamp is believed by some to be a reburial site for Native American remains.
GREENFIELD — It is still unclear whether the motivation for a citizen-proposed burial ground protection ordinance is strictly to safeguard Native American burial grounds or also to help stop major development, possibly even the big box retail store approved for French King Highway.
Though its original author, Greenfield resident and Native American activist Howard Clark, has maintained that the proposed ordinance he penned has “nothing to do with the big box” project, during a recent Town Council Appointments and Ordinances Committee he said that he doesn’t want the big box project to move forward without the protection of burial grounds.
Clark said he is concerned about the 10 acres adjacent to the project, which is known as the White Ash Swamp, even though the developer agreed early on to set that property aside from any development because of the possibility that Native burials from across the highway may have been moved there during excavations in the mid-20th century.
Northfield resident and Native American advocate Joseph Graveline, who is a member of the Nolumbeka Project with Clark, told councilors that he would like to see an ordinance in place before a Housing Court judge decides on an appeal of whether the French King project can move forward.
The project’s Planning Board approval, which was contested by abutters — who are being represented by Albert Norman, the Greenfield man who is known nationally as a “sprawl-buster” and opponent of Walmart and other large retailers — is currently under review by a Housing Court judge.
Norman and town officials have said that the judge could decide that the project must go back before the Planning Board to begin the permitting process from scratch.
The Appointments and Ordinances Committee has recommended to the full council that it pass an ordinance saying it would like strict protection of burial and reburial grounds. A final draft of the ordinance has not yet gone before the full council.
Precinct 1 Councilor Marian Kelner, who is a member of the Appointments and Ordinances Committee and who voted to send a positive recommendation to fellow councilors, said the ordinance would simply be a way for the town to make sure all state and federal laws are followed. She said it doesn’t aim to go beyond current laws.
When asked why the council wouldn’t just pass a resolution to voice its support, because state and federal laws already protect burial and reburial grounds, Kelner said she’d like to see a little more “bite” to the local law than a resolution would give.
Kelner and other councilors have said the ordinance would not block development, but simply mimic state and federal laws, though it would add the requirement of a local representative of Native Americans be appointed and participate with others having jurisdiction in the enforcement of state and federal laws.
While councilors have said the ordinance would not go beyond state and federal rules, Clark, who co-founded Friends of Wissatinnewag Inc., said he wrote the ordinance because “state law is just too weak.”
Clark said he wants an ordinance that is “stronger than the state’s law.”
Graveline has told The Recorder that he and Clark do not want to elaborate on their comments at this time “out of respect for all parties.”
Town Council Vice President Hillary Hoffman and Precinct 5 Councilor David Singer have said wording of the ordinance will need to be examined carefully to make sure it doesn’t interfere with development throughout town, but that protection of burial grounds is important.
“We need to allow conversation to happen before we make a decision,” said Hoffman. “It’s a complicated issue, but we want to recognize state and federal laws.”
The ordinance currently says that “The Town of Greenfield recognizes, to the extent provided for in state and federal law, any known place where American Indian remains have been buried or reburied as an American Indian burial ground, and as such, it 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.”
There have been questions about whether the ordinance might cause problems for the big box project already approved for the 17 acres near the swamp on French King Highway.
If the project were considered an entirely new one by the judge, would it 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 development site.
There is also a question about what would happen if the ordinance is passed and the current developer later decides to sell the French King 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 ordinance says that it is not intended to supersede, modify, alter, change or enlarge any existing ordinance, zoning bylaw or state and federal law.
“We aren’t trying to prevent the big box development from happening there, we just want to make sure that the 10 acres the Friends of Wissatinnewag was told would be protected stays that way,” said Clark. “We want it to be permanently protected.”
Other councilors have also said that they believe the intention of the ordinance is simply to “echo and reinforce” state and federal laws.
The full council will discuss the issue during a future meeting.