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Letters of review required for approval of Open Space, Recreation Plan

Date: 8/22/2013

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM – Approval of town boards and committees is not needed in order for Wilbraham’s open space and recreation plan to be submitted to the state.

In a joint meeting that included representatives from the Board of Selectmen, Open Space and Recreation Plan Committee, Conservation Commission and the Planning Board, with the intention of clearing up confusion regarding the process, Candace Ouillette Gaumond, administrative assistant for the Selectman’s Office, said she was told by representatives from the state that letters of review – not letters of approval – were required.

“I spoke with Bob Connor, who is the person who oversees the Division of Conservation Services for the state under the executive office of Environmental Affairs. That division oversees the open space and recreation plan,” she said. “According to them, which is in sync with the open space and recreation plan requirements, a letter of review is required from the Planning Board, Conservation Commission, Executive branch – which is the Board of Selectmen – as well as the regional planning entity [Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC)].”

Under those guidelines, the plan could be submitted without approval from all of those entities so long as they attest they have reviewed the plan.

The Board of Selectmen is scheduled to vote on whether or not it approves of the plan in September.

Planning Board Chair Richard Butler said the Planning Board had previously approved the plan twice and anticipated it would do so again with the latest draft, and the PVPC had also spoken favorably of the plan.

The Conservation Commission voted not to support the plan at a recent meeting, a decision Chairman Christopher Brown said was due to concerns of five to seven members on the board regarding the affect on personal property.

“I didn’t agree … I thought for the most part it was similar to what had been done 10 years ago – it’s basically a history of the town, its soil and an inventory of open space,” he said. “There were a couple of paragraphs that seemed to draw the ire of several members who were rather vehement in their fear that this was some usurpation of individual property owners rights.”

Planning Board member Jeffrey Smith said there should be some clarification on what should be included in a letter of review. The selectmen stated according to the state regulations in the documentation, the letter only needs to affirm that the board or commission has reviewed the document. However, all at the meeting agreed that comments regarding the plan would be included in their letters.

“I think the requirement is pretty basic. The requirement is to say, ‘I reviewed it,’” Board of Selectmen Chair James Thompson said. “But I would hope we would give the document its due justice and it does deserve to have comments made, I believe, both positive and negative. It’s part of the process.”

It was also pointed out that the documentation states specifically that, at minimum, comments from the selectmen, Planning Board and PVPC are required.

Joe Calabrese, a member of the Open Space and Recreation Plan Committee, stated his frustration in how long the process was taking.

“The thing that I cannot understand is that years ago when this plan was before the Conservation Commission, before [the Board of Selectmen], before the Planning Board and everyone told us that the town was proud of us and it was a no-brainer,” he said. “Then it seems whatever happened less than a year ago when someone spoke at a selectmen’s meeting changed all of your minds all of a sudden.”

Thompson said he understood the frustration, but said the town had the responsibility to address concerns that was raised to them regarding the plan.

Calabrese also stressed the importance of the open space and recreation plan for the town.

“I used to coach cross country in East Longmeadow for 26 years. We ran off-road for all of those years and when I first coached, we ran off-road for hours without seeing houses in East Longmeadow. By the time I finished coaching, we had no place to run off-road. They built up every piece of open space they had there,” he said. “You look at East Longmeadow now, you walk on a bike trail that goes along the back side of buildings. Do we want to do that in Wilbraham?”

Planning Board member David Sanders questioned the PVPC’s involvement and the process in its entirety, stating it threatened Wilbraham’s sovereignty.

Thompson responded by saying that the PVPC is simply a part of the process and does not supersede the town’s input.

“We may have differences of agreement, but I hope the one thing we can agree on is that this was a process that we – we being the town – tried to solicit as much input as possible,” he said. “I understand your concern with the connection from Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, but that is their opinion and there are three other groups here that will weigh in with their opinions, some you may agree with, some you may not. I think everyone should have the opportunity to state their views and their opinion and put it in writing.”

Sanders then asked if individual citizens could submit their own comments, but it was decided that would only unnecessarily slow the process further.