Town leaders shocked committee brought Norman in
Call actions of Appointments and Ordinances Committee ‘improper,’ ‘extremely disrespectful,’ ‘disturbing’
Bob Gilmore and Tim Farrell of Gilmore & Farrell Insurance Agency, Inc. in the old Yetter building on Bernardston Rd in Greenfield.
Editor’s note: Watch a recording of Monday’s Appointments & Ordinances Committee meeting, courtesy of Greenfield Community Television. The discussion about proposed changes to a wetland protection law begins around the 30:30 mark in this video.
GREENFIELD — Several long-time town leaders have labeled as “surprising,” “disrespectful” and “disturbing” a Town Council committee’s allowing of a noted big box foe to offer up his own rewrite of a proposed wetlands ordinance that could affect future development in town.
Planning Board Chairwoman Roxann Wedegartner, Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Thomas McLellan and former Town Council President Timothy Farrell, who now serves on the Greenfield Redevelopment Authority and Greenfield School Building Committee, all said they are disappointed in the way the committee acted.
“If I’d tried this when I was on the council, I would have been called out by the same people who did this,” said Farrell. “It’s the truth, and they know it.”
Farrell referred to the Appointments and Ordinances Committee decision to allow Albert Norman, the Greenfield resident who is known nationally for fighting big box development, to present his rewrite of a proposed ordinance that the town’s Conservation Commission took the past 21/2 years itself to rewrite.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Farrell, who has served the town since 1999, some of that time as council president. “The town has an established process for these types of things. It’s called a ‘public hearing.’”
Farrell said the way Appointments and Ordinances approached the situation was “less than straightforward.”
“It’s inside baseball,” said Farrell. “People are trying to justify their actions and there is no justification.”
On Monday night, the council committee met to discuss a number of issues, including the Conservation Commission’s rewrite of the town’s wetlands laws. The Conservation Commission is charged by law with promulgating and enforcing wetlands laws locally
At that meeting, which can be watched at www.gctv.org, both Alex Haro, chairman of the commission, and Norman presented their rewrites — Norman’s was given equal standing and it appeared to be almost a competition of sorts, with committee Chairman David Singer asking Haro several times if he had problems with Norman’s rewrite.
The rest of Haro’s commission did not find out that Norman had done a rewrite of their work until Tuesday.
Thomas DeHoyos and Timothy Mosher were incensed. John Blasiak questioned why a board would allow a citizen to present changes to a board’s proposed ordinance outside of a public hearing.
“That is extremely disrespectful to a sitting board,” said Wedegartner. “In my (decade) of experience on the Planning Board, this has never happened, nor should it.”
Wedegartner said the process for taking public input happens during the public hearing process, which allows people to submit written comment even after the hearing is closed.
The long-time chairwoman said that usually only experts are allowed to speak outside of a public hearing.
“If a board needs information or guidance, it may ask for it,” she said.
Though Norman claims to be an expert in wetlands issues, he does not have a degree and has not been published on wetlands issues specifically. His knowledge of wetlands rules comes from research over years of opposing big box stores, which usually involve wetlands issues, as did the department store projects proposed for French King Highway.
“I just can’t believe this is happening,” said Wedegartner. “Something like that should not be tolerated.”
McLellan, who has served on town boards, including the ZBA, of which he is now chair, for more than two decades, said he has never seen anything like this “handled in this manner.”
“This was totally improper,” he said. “Why have a public hearing process if you are going to let people speak beforehand?”
McLellan said the Appointments and Ordinances Committee, which he, a former councilor, once served on, mishandled the situation.
“This is not Al’s fault,” he said. “This is whomever invited him to do this. It is a disrespectful move.”
Farrell and Wedegartner said they also blame the committee, not Norman.
“He was allowed to participate,” said Farrell. “He took advantage of the opportunity, yes, but the committee handed it to him.”
Farrell said what happened this week was bad for Greenfield, bad for the legislative process and bad for the council.
“Councilors keep saying they are not controlled by Al Norman, but this didn’t help their case,” said Farrell. “The same councilors would not vote Isaac Mass onto the Planning Board because he is pro-growth, but just let a guy with the complete opposite view change a wetland ordinance that will stop development.”
Farrell said Norman, because he has never been appointed to or elected to a town board, should not be able to rewrite town laws, because there’s no accountability.
“But, there is accountability when it comes to the committee members who allowed this to happen,” he said.
Norman’s revisions include removing a waiver that allows some flexibility when the Conservation Commission is making a decision on large and small projects. It also greatly limits the replication of wetlands and alterations to wetlands, and it forces the commission to contact abutters of abutters about projects concerning wetlands. Replicating or altering wetlands is a common practice that communities have used for decades to allow developers to fit a project on a site while minimizing or eliminating the impact on wetlands.
Most of Norman’s revisions, if not all, were arguments he made when he presented his case before the conservation commission while representing the abutters who oppose the big box development planned for French King Highway.
Precinct 5 Councilor and Appointments and Ordinances Committee Chairman David Singer said Thursday that he does not think the committee was wrong to allow Norman to present his own rewrite of the town’s wetland law before a public hearing is held.