Amherst’s Cemetery Fields ‘log jam’ continues

AMHERST – At the end of a forum last week on Amherst’s Cemetery Fields, the burial space versus sports fields problem remained at a stalemate.

A group called Friends of Cemetery Fields organized the Jan. 8 forum to talk about the fate of the 48-acre Merrimack Road property. Use of the land for recreation is scheduled to end in less than eight months, leaving the town with a severe shortage of playing fields.

Moderator Nate Jensen said his goal was to focus on the possibility of a compromise and avoid another “shooting gallery,” referring to a heated meeting last May when Cemetery Trustees took a lot of criticism.

None of the trustees were on the panel and none of them spoke from the audience of about 40 people.

Panel member Andy Rowe, the informal leader of the Friends, said the point of the evening was to look for compromise and common ground.

There is “no question that Cemetery Fields is a tremendous asset, and its loss will have a big impact on children,” said Selectmen Chairman Dwight Brew, who went over the history of the town’s ownership of the fields, beginning in 1993.

The trustees could sell about 10 acres, the portion in the flood plain, without losing potential for future burial space, he said, and the proceeds could be used to develop the first phase of what trustees call Forestview Cemetery.

But the problem, Selectman Brad Galinson said, is that trustees don’t believe dual use is in the best interest of the cemeteries, and “that’s why we can’t break the logjam.”

“Can the land be divided for two uses?
Absolutely,” Galinson said, but if the trustees say that can’t be done, “that’s the decision.”

The court settlement could be amended, he said, but without the trustees’ cooperation, the town could spend a lot of money and be years in court and not accomplish anything.

Wendy Ranneberg, of the Cemetery Fields Replacement Committee, said people don’t realize how dire the town fields shortage is. They comment, she said, that the corn fields near the high school could be developed into playing fields, and that’s impossible because they are preserved for agriculture forever.

“We looked at conservation land and there is nothing that allows us to replace Cemetery Fields,” she said. “It’s very, very difficult to convince people” to buy land. Athletic fields need to be easy to get to and not on dangerous roads, like Route 101.

Rowe called the dual use idea an opportunity to set new standards for cemeteries, and there is plenty of room for a buffer and avoiding noise is a simple matter of scheduling.

“Not finding common ground is very shortsighted,” he said, and “tying up a huge amount of land that may never be used for burial space is short-sighted.”

There is a petition that will go on the March election to remove the trustees and replace them with the Board of Selectmen. That seems like the only recourse, Rowe said, and will provide the community with an opportunity to have a say.

The land was bought 20 years ago for additional cemetery space, with playing fields allowed in the time interim. Trustees contend that they are bound to honor a court settlement with the former owner’s heirs that requires the end of all recreation activities on the property on Sept. 1, a restriction that applies as long as Cemetery Fields are held in trust.

At a budget hearing Monday night, Selectman Tom Grella, whose wife Marie Grella is a Cemetery Trustee, spoke “as a private citizen,” he said, to correct some of the things said at the forum, including the number of cemetery plots remaining in town, which is 110, not 600.

“In five years, Meadowview will be completely full,” he said.

Nancy McMillan, town recreation director, said the loss of the fields will really be felt in spring 2015 when soccer and lacrosse need flat fields.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at kcleveland@cabinet.com or 673-3100, ext. 304.