Clarence Fanto: Past time for Lenox to resolve dispute
It appears that many, perhaps most, residents are keen to move on from the Kennedy Park Belvedere dispute that has mired the town in dissension and a legal thicket.
Two years have passed since the imposing granite memorial was completed on the scenic, south-facing overlook just below 1,500 feet in the heavily-used park. The project was proposed by New York architect Michael Fieldman to honor his late son, Dr. Jordan Fieldman, a BMC physician who loved the park until he died at the age of only 38 on June 1, 2004.
The depth of a father's grief over the premature death of his child is beyond measure, of course. As it happened, the memorial was dedicated on June 1, 2011. Compared to the description of the project that emerged during public meetings of the Kennedy Park Committee and the Select Board in 2010, the memorial appeared much larger than expected.
Fieldman had sought to keep details of his initial proposal confidential; he spent $140,000 on the project and donated an additional $10,000 for overlook maintenance. The area of the park had fallen victim to neglect and abuse; overall, its appearance was vastly improved, but the notion of a private memorial on public, town-owned land still rankles some citizens. Unfortunately, media scrutiny of the project as it evolved through Town Hall meetings had been nearly non-existent.
Fast forward to the annual town meeting on May 2, where long-festering resentment surfaced during a 10-minute discussion of a warrant article to transfer $18,000 out of petty cash -- town reserves, to be more formal -- to fund already-paid legal bills to defend the lawsuit brought by 20 citizens at Boston's Suffolk Superior Court. Attorneys for the plaintiffs led by Sonya Bykofsky and for the town have a scheduled day in court on June 18 on the town's motion for "summary judgment" dismissing the lawsuit.
If the judge orders the case to proceed to a trial, the town's legal bills would soar. There's talk in Lenox that the attorney for the citizens group, Robert N. Meltzer of Mountain States Law Group in Framingham, is working pro bono, which means the plaintiffs bear no legal expenses. Bykofsky did not respond to an inquiry on this point.
As reported in an Eagle news article posted online last Saturday, Bykofsky and two supporters contended at Town Meeting that the memorial violates the local version of the statewide Scenic Mountain Act, which regulates work at elevations above 1,400 feet that affects vistas from afar.
But in a follow-up interview, Town Manager Gregory Federspiel pointed out that the town's Conservation Commission ruled that no violation occurred, though the ruling came after the memorial was completed and ideally should have preceded construction. The citizens' group declined to appeal the commission's ruling to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Federspiel labeled as a falsehood the contention by the citizens group that open-meeting law violations occurred prior to the Select Board's approval of the project in October 2010. Multiple complaints about alleged violations have been rejected by state Attorney General Martha Coakley's office.
The town manager also described as untrue the group's insistence that Town Hall had failed to offer compromises that would have avoided a lawsuit. In fact, Federspiel had proposed binding arbitration or a town-wide referendum so residents could vote on whether to retain or remove the granite memorial.
Since some residents -- it's impossible to determine how many -- still view the memorial as offensive, it would be eminently fair and reasonable if those two compromise offers are reinstated by the town, though Bykofsky declined to respond when asked whether her group of 20 citizens would be open to an out-of-court resolution.
Federspiel told The Eagle that if the referendum results favor removal of the monument, the town would act accordingly, acknowledging that he regrets the controversy: "I think it was avoidable, I certainly wish I caught the need for that Scenic Mountain [Act] permit prior to the construction. If we had done that, it would have been a whole different story."
He has acknowledged that judges are reluctant to dismiss lawsuits on complex issues, so the odds are that, absent a settlement, the case will proceed to a trial. Federspiel voiced confidence that, if so, the town will prevail.
As for the citizens' group side of the case, Bykofsky is promoting a website, kennedyparkbelvederefacts.com, containing the plaintiffs' version of an events timeline, as well as documents, video clips from meetings and e-mail correspondence. She contends that The Eagle's coverage has been tainted by "sins of omission."
At the annual town meeting, there's little doubt that resident Christopher Fenton spoke for many when he "called the question," asking that residents end the comment period and proceed to a vote, remarking: "I'm sorry, we have much more important issues to worry about in our community than the Belvedere." By voice vote, a majority of the 350 citizens on hand sided with the town and approved the $18,000 fund transfer for legal expenses.
If the 20-member citizens' group is open to the town's compromise offers, there's no reason why the gridlock surrounding the issue can't be broken once and for all.
To contact Clarence Fanto: email@example.com or (413) 637-2551.
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