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Mediation process for proposed skatepark breaks down

BRATTLEBORO—An attempt to mediate a legal dispute over a proposed skatepark in the Crowell Lot on Western Avenue has failed.

A scheduled mediation session was cancelled last Tuesday, the day before it was due to happen, after Barry Adams, who lives near the Crowell Lot and is a member of the Save Our Playground Coalition (SOPC), objected to the scheduled presence of Town Manager Barbara Sondag at the first session.

In an email sent to The Commons, Adams wrote that he had been in communication with Cindy Cook, an Adamant-based mediator who took on the case after Environmental Court Judge Thomas Durkin ordered mediation to settle the dispute over plans for the park by Brattleboro Area Skatepark is Coming (BASIC), the nonprofit group advocating for its construction.

Adams, the only project opponent with legal standing before the court, wrote that members of SOPC, Town Attorney Robert Fischer, Town Zoning Administrator Brian Bannon, and Adam Hubbard, an architect for Stevens & Associates of Brattleboro who designed the proposed skatepark, were all initially asked to attend and that there was no objection to having Bannon, Fischer, and Hubbard involved.

“After learning at the last minute that the meeting would be taking place in [the Municipal Center], across from Barb Sondag’s office, I was suddenly informed that Barb Sondag would be attending mediation as well,” Adams wrote. “I was asked directly by Miss Cook if I had any objections to Barb’s participation and to let her know if I did.”

Adams’ main objection to having Sondag involved was that she would not add anything constructive to the process.

“Based on my awareness of what others felt, as well as my own experience with Barb, I felt her attendance would set a tone of defensiveness, or anger at this last minute announcement, at the table, rather than of openness to possibilities,” Adams wrote. “What would Barb be bringing to the mediation table (beyond discomfort) that Brian Bannon or Attorney Fischer cannot? I still don’t know.”

Adams wrote that after he told Cook that he objected to Sondag being part of the process, Cook unilaterally cancelled the mediation session.

“I received no further communication from Ms. Cook, who then sent out a notice of cancellation of the mediation based on my refusal to meet with the town representative,” he wrote.

In an Jan. 10 email to Adams and the other SOPC members, Snow wrote that “I have already fielded and responded to well over 50 emails on this case. While mediators are often ‘professional optimists,’ I simply do not see the value in continuing to try to convene a mediation.”

Adams responded by writing that “I believe that if Ms. Cook felt the outcome was not hopeful she should have determined that before today, and shared her professional opinion with all of us long before now.”

In an email sent to The Commons last Wednesday, Snow would not comment on why mediation broke down, but held out hope that it could be revived.

“If all parties agree to petition the court for another extension, they may try again with another mediator,” she wrote. “Otherwise, the court will move forward.”

Sondag also expressed disappointment at the breakdown of the talks.

“We were prepared to go to mediation,” she said on Tuesday, “and it didn’t happen. Now, we’re moving forward to the next step.”

In an interview with Hubbard after he testified before the Tree Advisory Committee last Tuesday, he said that he felt it was Adams’ decision, not Cook’s, to scuttle the mediation hearing.

“We have been as accommodating as possible to SOPC, but it’s been difficult to achieve a compromise,” said Hubbard, who is also involved with BASIC.

“They [SOPC] simply oppose the skate park, and don’t want to see it built,” Hubbard said.

Lengthy fight gets longer

In June 2010, the town School Board approved, pending some details on the lease, the transfer of control of a portion of the Crowell Lot to the town, and the Recreation and Parks Department, for the construction of a skatepark.

That lease set a deadline of five years to complete the project.

A month later, the Brattleboro Development Review Board (DRB) approved a plan by the Brattleboro Skatepark Committee to build a 12,000-square-foot skatepark.

On Sept. 12, Adams appealed the DRB’s decision to the Vermont Environmental Court.

Adams, and other members of SOPC, objected to the skatepark’s location, citing fear it would destroy old-growth trees at the Crowell Lot, displace the young children that use the playground currently on the site, and create a potential eyesore for visitors entering Brattleboro via Western Avenue.

Durkin ordered the mediation in November.

Had mediation taken place and been successful, SOPC and the Skatepark Committee would then have made a presentation to the Environmental Court, and Durkin would have issued a ruling shortly thereafter.

Now, the case will go to trial.

Under the terms set by Durkin, mediation had to be completed by Jan. 4.

Now that the mediation has failed to result the dispute, Adams has until Jan. 27 to file a brief supporting his position to the court. The DRB has until Feb. 21 to respond to Adams’ brief.

Adams said he plans to file and anticipates meeting the court’s deadline. He said he is disappointed with the breakdown of the mediation process, but emphasized that he is not to blame.

Adams had hoped the mediation would “identify potential points of common ground,” he wrote.

“And there were points of common ground,” he wrote.

“ I met, for the very first time, with Adam Hubbard for a very pleasant and congenial hour and a half in my own dining room as a direct result of Ms. Cook (a professional mediator) mishandling the case. Speaks volumes of what could have occurred long ago, and I am sad that it didn’t.”

Longsmith steps down

Not long after the breakdown of mediation, David Longsmith submitted his resignation from the town Skatepark Advisory Committee.

“My participation in this project has put a tremendous strain on my health and my family and I need to reallocate my time,” wrote Longsmith in his resignation letter sent to Sondag last Thursday.

“I hope that my resignation does not compromise the future of the skatepark and I wish the town, the Rec and Parks Department, and my committee colleagues only success in completing this vital project,” his letter continued.

Longsmith, who also served as president of BASIC, said last week that “I am going to continue to contribute to the project, but I need to step away from the fray a bit.”

In an interview last month, Longsmith described the town’s efforts to build the park as “a very up-front and open process,” but he was disappointed with what he called the lack of willingness to compromise by SOPC.

Construction costs for the skatepark are estimated at about $300,000. More than $50,000 has been pledged or donated so far, and BASIC has continued its fundraising efforts despite the legal dispute.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #135 (Wednesday, January 18, 2012).

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