Columnist Ginny Curtis: Westhampton decision-making faulty

  • Mark Schwallie, standing, the chairman of the Westhampton Planning Board, speaks during a public hearing about a sawmill permit for Cotton Tree Service on May 23 at Town Hall. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

There is a storm brewing in Westhampton. Some folks are looking to the skies; most taxpayers are glaring up at Town Hall. Will the Select Board prove Jonathan Swift wrong when he said, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”?

Having attended the Westhampton Planning Board public hearing May 23 and after reading Select Board Chairman Phil Dowling’s comments in the May 31 Gazette (“Explains statements about Westhampton sawmill”), begs two questions: Did we attend the same special permit hearing? Did he hear the Planning Board roll call vote reaffirming its 2015 vote denying the special permit for a commercial sawmill?

Dowling stated in his letter, “… while the cost of litigation is always a concern for small towns, it was not a factor in the unanimous decision by Select Board and Planning Board to settle the two-year-old lawsuit.” A “unanimous decision” was reached? Inform us, by which boards and at what public meeting? What, then, is their concern?

Exasperated, angry, and confused homeowners were told the lawyers’ “agreement for judgment,” based upon a “unanimous decision,” overrides the state zoning special permitting process. We read in the “agreement” that the “court will issue the special permit” transforming the May 23 denial into an approval to be filed with our town clerk. We are to accept that someone will create a silk purse from a sow’s ear for the applicant, refuting the premise that special permit decisions are “discretionary and will not be disturbed…” (Massachusetts court cases)?

After two years of winning court motions, and one day away from a “trial ready” case, town counsel stated that losing the case was “a real possibility.” The answer to the question of why went unanswered at the hearing.

Rather than proceed to a trial, the officials instead “negotiated a set of conditions having teeth” to regulate the proposed commercial sawmill. Select Board member Art Pichette eloquently stated May 23, “We are not doing this to you, we are doing it for you.” Part-time building inspector Chuck Miller has stated that the “conditions are unenforceable.”

Dowling wrote: “As we have discovered, it is hard to argue against the town’s own bylaws.” We are to believe town counsel took two years to come to that costly conclusion?

The “right to farm” bylaw does not govern this proposed commercial operation; our approved “sawmill” zoning bylaw does. This parcel of land, despite what the “agreement” states, does not have a Chapter 61 “forestry plan” in place, according to a state Bureau of Forestry official.

Let it be clear that the owner, “Dodge Maple Grove Farm LLC,” is not a “farm.” Quite the contrary, the description of this Massachusetts business entity formed in 2011 by David Cotton is defined in public records: “Investment in, and ownership and development of, real estate and interests therein, including buying, re-financing …”.

Let it also be clear that David Cotton is not a Westhampton farmer. In his other Massachusetts business filing, Cotton Tree Service Inc. in Northampton, he is listed as an “arborist, landscaping and tree work.”

Dowling stated that he looks to the newly formed Zoning Bylaw Review Committee and a process “for residents to look closely at our community and decide what the future Westhampton will look like.” I serve on this committee; revisions will be proposed for residents’ approval.

The Select Board approving an “agreement” reversing the 2015 and 2017 Planning Board decision, has undermined the special permitting process of local control in our town bylaws. What the Northwest Road neighborhood will look and sound like in the future can’t be determined by three Select Board members and two lawyers.

Dowling’s hollow words, “I have complete empathy for the abutters’ anguish at the loss of peace and quiet in their neighborhood,” have fallen on taxpayers’ defying ears.

The decision-making process here is problematic.

Ginny Curtis, who has lived in Westhampton for 45 years, is a former member of the Zoning Board of Appeals and serves on the Bylaw Review Committee concerned with land-use planning.