Amherst locked out of Cemetery Fields

AMHERST – Cemetery Fields is now officially off-bounds to the public. On Sept. 1 the 48-acre former recreation property was given back to its owners, the Cemetery Trustees, who plan to use some of it for more burial sites.

The day before, Town Administrator Jim O’Mara removed a town lock and attached a lock provided by the trustees to the gate that bars vehicles.

Because the town recreation director and the cemetery sexton both live out of town, “I accepted responsibility” for locking the gate, he said in an email.

The Sept. 1 deadline came at the end of a bitter conflict between trustees and residents, many of them parents, who said the town has a greater need for recreation fields than it has for graveyards.

But at the March elections voters rejected two warrant articles that would have facilitated the return of the fields, located at 70 Merrimack Road, to the town.

Income from the trustees’ perpetual care funds was used to buy the property in 1993, and several years later a court settlement with the former owners’ heirs said recreation use must stop in 2014.

Trustees say they are legally required to stop all recreation activity at Cemetery Fields, and the state Attorney General’s Charitable Trust Division sent “basically a cease-and-desist order” saying all recreation activity must stop by Sept. 1, 2014, and the only way to change the settlement would be to go back to court.

In response to questions at a forum last year, trustees also said building the first phase of their plan for what they call Forestview Cemetery would not physically interfere with recreation activity and that phase would be good for 25 years.

The three trustees, however, have been adamant that dividing Cemetery Fields into burial space and play space would not work. They say mourners seek privacy and solitude and those needs are incompatible with sporting events.

Along with its baseball, lacrosse and soccer fields, Cemetery Fields had also been the site of the Sarah Jeanne Roy Memorial Playground, donated to the town 16 years ago by Dan and Nancy Roy as a memorial to their daughter, who died at 21 months of an acute viral infection.

It was the town’s only public playground not on school property, and recreation officials had tried to relocate it, without success.

So the playground was dismantled last month and delivered to the yard of the public works building.

Recreation Director Craig Fraley had hoped that the swings could be installed at the edge of the Bean fields, near the town recreation office, property that is owned by the Amherst School District.

Town Administrator Jim O’Mara told selectmen last week that he talked to the Amherst School Board, and school officials are concerned about the possibility of a lacrosse ball hitting a child. They are asking their insurance carrier, which has a certified playground expert, to look into it.

The rest of the equipment is rusty and needs to be refurbished if it is ever used again.

“People are still out looking for suitable locations,” O’Mara told selectmen recently, and the Baboosic Lake town beach was mentioned as a possible site.

Along with the playground equipment, the baseball backstop and other sports items were removed from the fields.

Selectman Tom Grella told the board he would winterize the irrigation system, as he has done for years.

Andy Rowe, a resident and parent who has been campaigning for mixed use of Cemetery Fields, said in an email last week that the effort is not over.

Selectmen say they are asking Fraley, the town’s new recreation director, to look into the fields situation and determine whether a perceived shortage is a reality.

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