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Suit objecting approval of Hampden Country Club’s site plan filed

Date: 12/12/2013

By Chris Maza

HAMPDEN – A group of residents have filed a suit in Hampden County Superior Court asking that the Planning Board’s approval of Hampden Country Club’s renovation site plan.

Phill Schneider, a resident of 143 Raymond Drive and member of the Hampden Country Club Buffer Committee, told Reminder Publications that the filing was made in case an appeal at the Jan. 28, 2014 Zoning Board of Appeals fails.

“We have filed as a last resort. We only have a brief period of time in which we could file,” he said. “We’re hoping it doesn’t come to having to go to court.”

Schneider said the Hampden Country Club Buffer Committee has several concerns regarding the work that is being performed at the golf course, which was purchased at auction by Jerry and Frank Antonacci, owners of USA Hauling and Recycling in Enfield, Conn.

Hundreds of trees in a buffer zone between the course and the residences have been knocked down as part of the ongoing renovations and reconstruction of the course located on Wilbraham Road, according to Schneider.

He explained that in 1972 when the Town Meeting established the zoning bylaws for the Golf Recreational District, one of the requirements was the creation and continued existence of a 100-foot landscaped buffer, which was to remain “densely treed to help reduce the hazard of misdirected golf balls to the neighbors.”

“We are not against the golf course. It’s a gorgeous piece of property,” Schneider said. “But we feel that the zoning bylaws have been ignored and they have taken down hundreds of trees and installed golf cart paths, which are going to be paved, as well as tee boxes where some of those buffer zones used to be. There is stuff there now that wasn’t supposed to be there.”

He also said that in areas where trees were at one time, a large berm has been erected.

“They replaced the trees with dirt,” he said. “A 12-foot high pile of dirt is more of a structure than landscaping.”

Schneider said he was especially discouraged by the lack of oversight of the project by elected bodies in town, specifically the Planning Board.

While construction on the course, as well as a new banquet facility, has been underway for some time, he said, the board has just recently approved the project’s plans.

Planning Board Chair Neil Flynn referred all questions to Town Counsel David Martell, who told Reminder Publications he was not in a position to comment at this time as he was still gathering information.

Schneider questioned why the plans were not approved prior to work beginning and why bylaws on the books are not being enforced in this case.

“I’ve lived in town for 50 years and I have known the town to enforce everything that has been asked of them,” he said. “We have been attending Planning Board, Conservation Commission and Selectmen’s meetings and haven’t been able to get any relief.”

Representing country club ownership, Seth Stratton, an attorney with the law firm Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, told Reminder Publications that site plan approval was not necessary for work to begin.

Guy Antonacci, general manager of Hampden Country Club, said he didn’t feel the club was violating any zoning regulations.

"Hampden Country Club is committed to establishing a first class country club of which the residents of Hampden can be proud,”?he said. “We have continued to be open to hearing constructive feedback from our neighbors and have taken many steps to address legitimate concerns. While Hampden Country Club cannot comment on pending litigation, we firmly believe that we have complied with Hampden's zoning bylaws."

The club's ownership has engaged in a dialogue with residents who have raised issued, including a forum at La Cucina de Hampden House attended by residents and club representatives.

According to minutes from the Oct. 23 meeting, the Planning Board approved by a vote of 3-1 the country club’s plan, which included the addition of five to 31 five- to six-foot trees in two scattered rows on top of the berm along the course’s eighth fairway and 31 trees planted in a similar manner on the berm along the seventh hole fairway.

The plans were approved contingent on the planting of five- to six-foot arborvitaes on the back corner of the property, the installation of a three-rail fence where there are no arborvitaes.

Therese and Paul Bechard of 125 Wilbraham Road indicted that the tee box that exists on their property doesn’t need to be removed and Jonathan Murray, representing Hampden Country Club at the meeting, indicated that all other planned tee boxes were removed from the Bechard’s property along with a cart path.

Schneider also pointed out that earlier this year, work at the country club resulted in serious fines by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). According to an Oct. 10 press release by the state, the club was fined $115,860 for construction efforts occurring within a brook without wetland permits from the town, the state or the federal government.

The MassDEP staff, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found the work altered the landscape, stating in the release, “Hampden Country Club had opened up substantial acreage of unstable and excavated soils, filled in and placed segments of Watchaug Brook within a pipe, filled wetlands, altered ponds, impacted Riverfront Area and discharged muddy water into Watchaug Brook.”

In addition to the fine, the club was required to restore the wetland areas.