BRATTLEBORO—The process for constructing a skateboard park at the Crowell Lot on Western Avenue will continue as planned.
After an intense discussion at the first Selectboard meeting after town elections, the board voted last Tuesday against a motion made by board member David Gartenstein to hold two public forums to discuss a skateboard park at the Crowell Lot, discuss possible other locations for the park, and to determine if the Selectboard must take any further votes on the project.
The motion was defeated 2–3, with members Dora Bouboulis and Gartenstein in favor, and Chair Dick DeGray, and members Ken Schneck and Chris Chapman opposed.
The town Development Review Board (DRB) issued a permit for the park last summer, which was then appealed to the state Environmental Court.
Three weeks ago, the board was presented with a settlement of that appeal, and the DRB permit was upheld by the court.
The DRB, however, still has to approve the park’s final plan, said Gartenstein.
At a previous meeting, he said, the board commented on the concerns they’d heard about the skatepark and determined that discussion about the park could still continue.
In response to this statement, the floodgates opened with people expressing their view to the board, mostly through email.
This flood of public comment prompted Gartenstein to propose that conversations about the park require a process for presenting information.
He proposed scheduling two public forums four weeks apart in April and May.
Potential topics, he said, could include the park’s history, a timeline of decisions, and discussing park locations openly so the public could hear which locations other than the Crowell Lot were not selected and why.
Cost for construction could also go on the table, as well as questions about whether the town should even take on the project. Finally, said Gartenstein, the forums could serve as a place to discuss the project’s risks and benefits.
Gartenstein told members of the public, who filled both the Selectboard and Hanna Cosman rooms, that as he understood it, Town Meeting Members authorized the town to enter into a lease for the Crowell Lot to build the park during the 2010 annual Town Meeting.
Planning started in June but he was not aware of other votes by the board.
“It’s not clear that another vote is needed, but the issue should be addressed,” he said. “It’s an open question, at least as I understand it.”
Gartenstein added that although the park underwent numerous approval processes, some members of the public questioned whether the process was legitimate.
“The two public forums would strike a good compromise,” he said.
An adequate process?
Bouboulis said that there was no adequate public process, and if there was a public process, it started at step seven of out 10. This misstep thwarted other groups, like the neighborhood, weighing in, she said.
The original lease question, she said, came at the end of an hours-long Pay-As-You-Throw discussion last year. According to Bouboulis, Town Meeting members questioned at the time if the lease vote would allow for a public process and if the proposed lease was a true lease.
She added that the skatepark issue has started on an adversarial step in part because of the lack of a full public process.
The board should foster a culture of public comment, said Bouboulis.
In her opinion, “the board made a mistake by turning an advocacy group [Brattleboro Area Skatepark Is Coming, or BASIC] into a town board.”
“You have to reach out to the neighbors before it [a project] becomes a done deal,” she said. “I feel strongly that in order for this to be done well they have to engage, like [was done with] the West River Park. Recreation and Parks should perform a whole site review.”
Schneck said he found the board’s conversation “problematic.”
“The Selectboard approved the skatepark committee,” he said. “Every BASIC meeting is a public forum. Why does the Selectboard need to establish separate public forums? If the committee’s meetings are not open, then that’s where the board must intervene.”
Schneck said that the board also approved grants for the project at previous meetings. If the board had questions, it should not have approved the grants.
Changing course now, in Schneck’s opinion, would set the BASIC committee apart from other town committees.
Gartenstein felt the public comments he had received made him feel it appropriate to air public concerns as well as asking the town attorney to look for any open issues requiring votes or permits.
He added that he does not oppose the skatepark, but that he wanted the public to have a chance to voice its opinion so residents would feel the project had received a full vetting.
Schneck said that the motion on the table opened new avenues for the project, like a possible new location, essentially negating the town-sanctioned process that came before.
“There’s always a public process,” said Town Manager Barbara Sondag.
According to Sondag, the town has no standard project criteria. Each project is different, she said.
“And they probably shouldn’t,” Sondag said. “The wastewater treatment plant did not follow the same process as the [West River] ball field.”
Chapman said any delay caused by holding the public forums could affect BASIC’s present and future fundraising success.
“This also calls the Selectboard’s credibility into issue,” he said.
Bouboulis and Gartenstein disagreed with Chapman’s statements.
Members of the public, on both sides of the skatepark issue, responded to the board’s motion.
Some people, concerned about the park, said siting the skatepark at the Crowell Lot was decided without adequate discussions with abutters. Others stated concerns centering around lack of an obvious public process, environmental impacts, and public safety.
Herb Eisenberg said he did not feel comfortable discussing his concerns at a BASIC committee meeting.
According to BASIC committee members, the group has held about 70 open meetings in the past two years.
Barry Lane, who said he has worked on this project for 10 years, objected to an earlier characterization of the project and related discussions as happening in a silo.
“The idea that conscientious people are somehow missing an important point is disingenuous,” he said. “The motion such as it is, is almost punitive.”
Instead, said Lane, the project needs a firm commitment from the board — yea or nay.
Former Selectboard member Daryl Pillsbury expressed frustration.
According to Pillsbury, he first attempted to establish a skatepark in 1996. Locations other than the Crowell Lot had received review, he said.
In Pillsbury’s opinion, holding two public forums could set a precedent for switching course on other town projects whenever a new Selectboard wants a different outcome from what had been established.
BASIC committee member Adam Hubbard said that the committee has done its best to be open to the public.
“BASIC was formed with explicit intent of building a park in the Crowell Lot,” he said. “We’ve made commitments based on that commitment. Saying the process is not valid is an insult.”
Gartenstein said he meant no disrespect to the process when he made the motion for the public forums.
He said he made the motion, however, so the town could have the same type of dialogue as was taking place at last week’s meeting, and he was not sure that this level of conversation had happened around the skatepark.
DeGray said the project would go forward providing it raises enough funding and final design is approved.
Bouboulis said the better the public process, the better the completion of the project. In her opinion, a difference exists between having the process at the committee or the Selectboard level.
It remains difficult for those opposing a project to feel they can express their views to a committee charged with obtaining a specific goal like Pay-As-You-Throw or the skatepark, she said.
“The town has not reached the point of reluctant acceptance,” she said.
“The problem with this proposal is that it cuts BASIC out of the loop, and that is disrespectful,” said Schneck.
“There has been due process by a committee appointed by the Selectboard,” said Chapman.
Chapman expressed discomfort about the quality of the skatepark process but said he also felt confident the public process took place.
“The board must respect the process it put in place, whether explicit or implicit,” he said. “The democratic process, when it comes to a difficult decision, is never a tidy one.”
In a separate interview, Bouboulis said that as a public project that will come under the town’s insurance, will be maintained by the town, and will be included in the capital plan, the skatepark required greater public input.
Private projects go through entities like the DRB, and there’s little input the public can give, she said.
Within the democratic process, however, there’s always more that can be done, like filing petitions, and the town needs to be more responsive to residents, Bouboulis said.
“I’m hearing a lot of concern [about the park],” she said. “I think it will be an ongoing issue.”
Bouboulis said she has received most of the feedback about the skatepark through conversations rather than the well-choreographed and favorable letter-writing campaign launched by the skatepark’s proponents.
“I’ve had my concerns all along,” said Bouboulis about the skatepark. “But my issue right now is process.”
When asked what her concerns about the project were, Bouboulis answered, “I don’t want to get into that issue.”
According to Bouboulis, the skatepark project and site at Crowell Lot went to the DRB prematurely, setting in motion a legal process before the project had been fully vetted by a public process.
Bouboulis is looking into creating an ad hoc committee to develop committee rules of conduct, use of media policy, and best practices for a public process.
“We tend to do things [projects] piecemeal instead of holistically,” she said.