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Editorial: Focus protection on White Ash Swamp

Protecting Native American burial sites should not be a controversial issue in Greenfield ... or, for that matter, anywhere else.

But because these sites, real or alleged, have been inextricably tied to the heated debate over property development in Greenfield during the past couple of decades, the issue is certainly not black and white.

It is important, therefore, that any proposed ordinance, such as the one recently put forward by Howard Clark, be carefully crafted and examined before being put on the books.

Any such ordinance cannot be too broad or written so it can be misinterpreted and misused.

Clark — co-founder of The Friends of Wissatinnewag and now a co-founder and board member of the Nolumbeka Project — has been for years at the forefront of various efforts to protect land said to have Native American remains buried on it. This effort most notably resulted in the Friends buying 61 acres from the Mackin family in 2001, acquiring property that in the 1990s had been at the center of the fight over a proposed Walmart.

More than a decade later, he’s organizing an effort to create an ordinance aimed specifically at the White Ash Swamp on French King Highway, which is adjacent to the land now sited for a discount department store.

Clark says he’s concerned that state and federal laws protections aren’t enough.

“We aren’t trying to prevent the big box development from happening there,” he told The Recorder. “We just want to make sure that the 10 acres the Friends of Wissatinnewag, was told would be protected stays that way.”

That acreage is now under town control and sheltered by a conservation easement.

But Clark says he’s worried that should Ceruzzi Inc., the land’s owner and developer, sell the property, that protection could disappear under new ownership.

But here’s where this ordinance gets tricky: Would existing sites already approved for development be “grandfathered?” And would the grandfathering be something that would transfer to a new owner?

Or could the new law wind up hampering any sale or future usage?

If the White Ash Swamp property is the concern, then any new ordinance should be focused solely on that acreage. That would achieve the desired protection while removing the ordinance from being used as a possible tool to stop development elsewhere in town.

Maybe that’s something Clark shouldn’t have to worry about. But we think the Town Council should. Yet there doesn’t seem to have been any attempt to tighten the focus in Councilor David Singer’s rewrite of the ordinance, which was approved by the council’s Appointments and Ordinances Committee Monday night.

It’s important to see intended and unintended consequences in writing such an ordinance, after all, it’s not as if there are no existing protections on the books. State and federal laws offer a wide scope in protecting Native American burial sites.

We continue to think that if the specific point is to improve safeguards for White Ash Swamp, as is the claim by the bylaw’s promoters, then the focus should be on that site.

Otherwise, we begin to suspect that this is an ordinance that will be used as a tool in future fights over development in Greenfield.

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