Committee OKs burial ground ordinance
Town Council likely to vote on it at Nov. 20 meeting
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 — The Appointments and Ordinances Committee will send a recommendation to Town Council later this month suggesting it pass an ordinance that would protect Native American burial sites throughout Greenfield, but it also appears it could potentially stall or block future development.
Precinct 2 Councilor and committee Chairman Keith Zaltzberg, Precinct 1 Councilor Marian Kelner, Precinct 6 Councilor Karen “Rudy” Renaud and Precinct 7 Councilor Karen Shapiro Miller all voted to send a positive recommendation to the full council, saying they’d like as strict an ordinance as possible to protect burial and reburial grounds.
Precinct 5 Councilor David Singer, who recently rewrote the ordinance for Greenfield resident and Native American activist Howard Clark, was absent from Monday night’s meeting. Singer is the fifth member of the 5-member committee.
The other four councilors, who had a couple of questions about the ordinance as Singer wrote it, said they would ask him questions at this month’s Town Council meeting, which will be held Nov. 20. The council is expected to vote on the ordinance at that meeting.
Clark said he originally wrote the ordinance with the intention of protecting what is known as the White Ash Swamp on French King Highway.
“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. The town currently controls the swamp and its preservation.
“When I first wrote the ordinance, I wrote it for reburial grounds, specifically the White Ash Swamp,” said Clark. “We did not rewrite this ordinance to what it is now, someone else did that.”
Clark said he did not even see Singer’s rewrite until just before the Appointments and Ordinances meeting on Monday night.
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 changes, now says, “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 some questions about whether the ordinance that will be presented to the full council, as rewritten by Singer, might cause problems 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 so it can re-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.
“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.
The White Ash Swamp is currently in a conservation restriction, but Clark and others are afraid someone could take it out of that someday.
“We want it to be permanently protected,” he said.
Zaltzberg has said the intention of the ordinance is simply to echo and reinforce state and federal laws.
“We want to echo and reinforce laws already in place without creating additional levels of potential problems or hurdles for land owners,” said Zaltzberg. “We aren’t trying to go beyond the state and federal rules.”
Town Council will meet Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. in the studio in Greenfield Community Television, 393 Main St.