Amherst playground raises protest

AMHERST – The group planning Joshua’s Park has mounted a vigorous defense of its plans after an abutter complained that the parking lot is too close to his home. The Amherst Land Trust plans to break ground in May on 4 acres of farmland on Courthouse Road, near Route 122, to build a children’s playground and community garden.

At the selectmen’s April 11 meeting, Steven Berube, 35 Courthouse Road, told selectmen the park will harm his family’s privacy and property values. He said the park’s access road should be off Route 122 and that the locations of the community garden and the 10-space parking lot should be switched to give him more privacy.

The parking lot is planned for near the Courthouse Road entrance to the park.

Berube said he has been working with the trust, but when excavation started, he could see how close the park will be to his home. "We heard from many people … including a Realtor, that this would affect our values," he said, reading from a statement. The trust should have let them know they had 30 days to appeal the site plan approval, he said, and warned people to protect themselves in similar situations. A few people spoke for and against the park plans. John Dowd asked for the trust to be good neighbors. Trish Berlack said s

he supports the playground and its planners, but that the abutters should have been made aware of their right to appeal. Bill Birchard, chairman of the trust’s Fundraising Committee, said people are treating the group as "professionals hardened to this process." "We have a lot of donors’ money we are trying to spend respectfully," he said.

Scott Adams, a major donor who sold the land for the park, said the layout makes sense because Route 122 is too dangerous for an exit and entrance, and the gardens will be located where the soil is most fertile. Although park approvals are not the selectmen’s responsibility, they have scheduled public hearings on May 9 an

d 23 to take input on Amherst acquiring the park from the trust so it can be covered under the town’s liability insurance. Sally Wilkins, president of the trust, said the nonprofit went to great lengths to satisfy Berube’s concerns, including working on Easter Sunday. In her summary of a 12- page letter in defense of the park plans, Wilkins said the alternate location the abutters wanted would have "sacrificed a significant portion of the highly fertile garden area and would have had a greater impact on other abutters." She said it "ironically would have had a greater visual impact on the Berubes’ home," since it is at a higher grade and can’t be screened by hedges. The idea of a Route 122 entrance was rejected, she said, after the Amherst police chief and public works director, as well as a traffic engineer and a state Department of Transportation engineer all expressed concerns about safety.

If curb cuts were built on 122, the DOT would impose a requirement for a sidewalk that meets state specifications at town expense, she said.

The trust has committed to planting rows of hedges as a screen between the park and the Berubes’ house and is seeking donations of large trees so the Berubes won’t have to wait for the hedges to grow. Buying the trees without a specific donor, however, "would violate our fiduciary responsibility" because it would be using funds donated for the park for the benefit of a single household, Wilkins wrote.

Ellen Grudzien, chairwoman of the Joshua Park Playground Committee, told selectmen that it is "horrible that a group that worked so hard has been smeared so publicly," and that playground equipment costing $150,000 is being delivered that can’t be returned.

The plans comply with the town’s permitting process and Amherst zoning regulations, and have the approval of the Planning Board and Historic District Commission. Wilkins and Birchard are members of the Planning Board and recused themselves from park discussions. Although the Berubes’ house is 15 feet from the park’s lot line, Wilkins said, it is at least 70 feet from the parking area, and the town has no setback requirement for driveways or parking areas.

Berube also suggested that the park’s location near the road is unsafe. Wilkins said the parking area is "safer than the one at Clark School," and the location of the playground "is far superior to the latelamented one at Cemetery Fields," where the access road divided the playground from the parking lot. The house is 70 feet, not 20 feet, from the parking lot, she said, far more than is required in the Village and more than abutters to the library or Clark School. Berube also charged that one abutter did not receive notice of the plans. Wilkins said all legal notification requirements were fulfilled.

"The address for the former Davis Farmhouse on the tax card is a corporate address, perhaps the new owners’ mortgage company. State law requires that the notices be sent to the address on the tax card. In any case, this abutter has repeatedly reaffirmed being in favor of the park as designed," Wilkins wrote in her point-by-point rebuttal to Berube’s charges. "As president of a nonprofit, I cannot divert funds that were donated for development of the park to enter into an illadvised site plan revision process in an attempt to appease one abutter," Wilkins wrote.

She said revising the site plan at this point could set a dangerous precedent. "I cannot recommend an action that might suggest to future developers that an approved and permitted site plan in Amherst might be subject to obstruction and delay eight months after the appeals period has ended," she said.

The park is named in memory of Joshua Savyon, an Amherst child who was killed during a supervised visit with his father at the Manchester YWCA three years ago. Joshua’s mother gave the largest donation, $150,000. Selectmen were careful to say that up until now their board has had nothing to do with the playground plans. Chairman Dwight Brew noted that if the town sought to build a playground, it could legally avoid the approval process.

The Amherst Land Trust purchased the property for $150,000, and fundraising is still underway to cover the cost of the land acquisition, site work and playground equipment. Plans for the 3.9-acre park include a community garden, playground, handicapped-accessible nature trail, and benches. There has been no public playground in Amherst since 2014, when the equipment at Cemetery Fields was taken away. The Amherst Community Foundation, the Amherst Conservation Commission and the Amherst Recreation Department have planned it as a recreation spot for all ages, with trails, community garden plots and a natural playground in the rear that blends into the surrounding woods and fields. The May 9 and 23 public hearings on whether the town should take ownership of the park will be at 6:30 p.m. in Town Hall.