Abutter appeals Deerfield Planning Board’s approval of town park site plans 

  • The Deerfield Planning Board approved the site plan and stormwater management plan for the North Main Street Park project on May 25. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer
Published: 7/11/2022 5:23:00 PM

DEERFIELD — An abutter of the proposed North Main Street Park has filed an appeal against the Planning Board, alleging the board “exceeded” its authority in approving the park’s site plan and has requested a judge annul the decision.

In documents filed with Franklin County Superior Court on June 15, attorney John McLaughlin, who is representing park abutter Judith Rathbone, alleges the town, which is the applicant for the project, has skirted the Green Development Standard bylaws passed at June 2021’s Town Meeting. The bylaws prohibit commercial, industrial or institutional developments from altering more than 40% of a site. McLaughlin wrote that the project will “physically alter 7.41 acres of the 8.48 acre site, which is 84% of the subject property.”

While the bylaw prohibits “commercial, industrial or institutional” projects from altering more than 40% of a site, there is no mention of municipal projects. The crux of McLaughlin’s argument is that the word “institutional” applies to town government based on the fact that Deerfield’s bylaws use the latest version of Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary to define words that are undefined by the town’s bylaws.

“The definition states that there can be institutional elements of a ‘political system,’ such as a local government,” McLaughlin wrote.

Speaking by phone Monday, McLaughlin said the town, based on what was filed for the project’s paperwork, is an institution of government. In the town’s stormwater eligibility permit, there is a checkmark in the “Yes” column asking if the project is “for commercial, industrial or institutional use.” In the site plan review application, however, the proposed use is marked as “municipal.”

“You can construe the word ‘institutional’ as part of the government,” he said, “and I think you can do that, and indeed the town, when they were filing their paperwork, they checked the box.

“Why did the applicant call themselves an institution?” McLaughlin added.

Reached by phone Monday, Planning Board Chair Analee Wulfkuhle said the Planning Board stands by previous advice from town counsel, which was given at public hearings for the park.

“Our legal counsel has found precedent that states you can’t imply something that’s not there; it needs to be stated,” Wulfkuhle explained in May. “We felt comfortable following legal counsel’s recommendation.”

Members of the Selectboard declined to comment on the lawsuit under advisement from town counsel.

The lack of the word “municipal” in the bylaw, McLaughlin said, could be a “clerical error.” He pointed to the May 2021 Town Meeting information session in which Wulfkuhle said the Green Development Standards would be “applicable to all site plan review applicants.”

“I think this is going to be an interesting case,” McLaughlin said. “I’m saying it’s either an institution, and it clearly looks like an institution, or they made a mistake and the court should go to what they wanted it to say. They intended these provisions to apply to everybody, that’s what the chair said.”

Even if the appeal is declined by the court, McLaughlin said allowing the town to alter more than 40% of a property goes against the point of developing the bylaws in the first place.

“If you’re really concerned about the environment and you pass these bylaws … to give them 100% makes these green bylaws look ridiculous,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the government or a corporation doing it, (the environment) is still ruined.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.


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