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Truce reached in battle over skatepark

Appeal of Brattleboro DRB permit dropped in exchange for changes to project

BRATTLEBORO—A second try at mediation in the legal dispute over a proposed 12,000-square-foot skatepark at the Crowell Lot has proven to be successful.

At a special meeting Feb. 29, the Selectboard announced that it reached an agreement with a resident of Western Avenue, where the park is located, who appealed to the Vermont Environmental Court the decision of the Development Review Board (DRB) last summer to approve a permit for the skatepark.

Barry Adams, who filed the appeal with the court last fall, agreed to drop the case in exchange for some modifications to the proposed design of the skatepark.

The agreement was the result of a five-hour mediation session at the Municipal Center on Feb. 23 that included town representatives and members of the Save Our Playground Coalition (SOPC), which opposed the skatepark, and Brattleboro Area Skatepark Is Coming (BASIC), the organization that has pushed for a skatepark in town for several years.

Michael Bernhardt of South Londonderry was the mediator. He was the second mediator assigned to the case. The first, Cindy Cook of Adament, resigned in January after concluding that an agreement would be impossible after both sides failed to reach an agreement over who would be allowed to attend a scheduled mediation session that month.

Environmental Court Judge Thomas Durkin ordered SOPC and BASIC members to sit down with a mediator before he would consider the case.

Town Manager Barbara Sondag represented the Selectboard at the mediation session.

“It went very well and was non-contentious,” she said last week. “Mike was excellent to work with. It was good to have this session to get people on both sides talking again. When litigation starts, the talking tends to stop.”

Adam Hubbard, a member of BASIC and the town Skatepark Committee, agreed.

“It’s not a done deal, but at least we can move forward with the park without the threat of litigation,” Hubbard said last week. “There was a sense of relief from all the participants involved once the session was over.”

Adams said he had mixed feelings about the outcome.

“The mediation session was an exercise in futility,” he said. “It made very clear that the ‘on the record’ process assures any potential possible for the most informed planning of development projects is effectively shackled.”

Adams was referring to the method that the DRB uses to conduct its hearings. The DRB takes testimony “on the record,” similar to a court of law, and if a decision is appealed, an appellant can only question the statements that were already made at the initial hearing and cannot introduce new information.

Adams said that many concerns “were not addressed in the defined Development Review Board process in any meaningful way,” adding that “valuable evidence, expertise, and knowledge purposely sought out by local citizens [SOPC members]” was not included in the DRB’s original deliberations.

“This was certainly not a surprise to me or the other interested parties in the room,” he said. “Additionally, we were informed that an ‘ironclad’ contract existed between the town and the Brattleboro School Board which prohibits any possibility that the skatepark might be built in an area of Crowell Park that might have less impact to the trees, pedestrian safety, aesthetics, etc.”

“Why it took a court appeal and judge-directed mediation to learn this remains questionable,” Adams said.

Under the terms of the agreement, the town agreed to reduce the size of the park by 1,000 square feet, to monitor traffic around the Union Hill neighborhood, and to take over maintenance of the park after it is built.

BASIC and its design team agreed to consider acoustic barriers to reduce noise.

Last July, the Development Review Board (DRB) approved a plan for a 12,000-square-foot skatepark at the Crowell Lot. That decision came after 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 project. That lease set a deadline of five years for completion.

SOPC, a group that opposes the skatepark that formed not long after the DRB’s ruling, based its opposition on noise, impact on the neighborhood, and the threat the park posed to a number of trees in the Crowell Lot.

Adams said he believes this case shows the limitations of a process that many residents are completely unfamiliar with.

“One hundred and forty-two individuals were concerned enough about Crowell Park, their neighbors, and our neighborhood to sign a petition and/or speak in support of SOPC’s mission and efforts. That should inspire us all. However, many of them stated they were unaware of the DRB process, the community meetings, and/or the proposed plan itself,” he said.

“This additional failure of our local process, ostensibly built on the values of inclusion and locally based decision making, could have been avoided if those who are easily recognized as likely to be significantly impacted by development proposals are engaged very early on,” Adams added. “A notice in the paper that invites stakeholders who are not savvy about the process does not constitute community ‘engagement.’”

Some SOPC members who were at last week’s Selectboard meeting still aren’t happy that the skatepark appears to be going forward. Sondag encouraged them to go to the monthly skatepark committee meetings and to become more involved in the process.

Despite the months of legal limbo, BASIC continued its fundraising for the skatepark. It recently received a $14,000 grant from the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services, which pushes the amount already raised for the project to about $64,000.

The project will ultimately cost $300,000.

BASIC hopes to reach its fundraising goal over the next 18 months. “Now, we can really start raising money, and put out a RFP [request for proposal] for a design/build contract,” Hubbard said. “This is a huge step forward.”

In the end, Adams said he was grateful to Hubbard and others “for their commitment to advancing peace and broadening my own perspective,” but still believed the months of litigation served an important purpose.

“I continue to believe that this is planning and process, at its worst,” he said. “I also believe the court appeal held meaningful merit in its questions.”

“I am very satisfied and happy that SOPC members are proactive and worked very hard to learn more about the issues, while seeking the strongest evidence we could find: evidence that could lead to a much better plan for Brattleboro’s skateboarders while also preserving a wonderful neighborhood playground and real town asset,” Adams said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #142 (Wednesday, March 7, 2012).

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