When the Marion Recreation Committee filed a Notice of Intent (NOI) with the town's Conservation Commission (ConCom) to construct a baseball field on town-owned land within the boundaries of Washburn Park back in February 2007, they probably didn't anticipate such a project would meet with any resistance from residents.
But a small and vocal group of abutters have expressed concern over the precise location of a proposed Little League field in the easterly corner of the park closest to Route 6. And for nearly two years now, they have been after the ConCom to at least consider an alternate plan ... going so far as to hire their own attorney to represent them in appeal hearings.
According to resident Laura Kay Coggeshall, this specific area is a pristine natural habitat for the endangered eastern box turtle -- a species that previously created similar concerns for the Little Neck Village expansion project -- and it also contains a walking trail that is frequently used by local residents.
"It's used for passive recreation right now," Ms. Coggeshall said. "People jog there, they walk their dogs there, other people use it for horseback riding and Tabor Academy uses it for track meets. We tried to get them to consider alternate areas during all the hearings before the ConCom, and they had an excuse for everything."
Ms. Coggeshall said she and fellow abutters like Anne Converse are not just concerned about the invasion of privacy that the new ball field will create, but also about the potential destruction of the natural habitat, the pollution of the existing wetlands area, and the fact that an open recreational area will be relegated to "selective recreational use" for just those who play baseball.
"Do we absolutely need another ball field to be used a few hours a year by a select few Marion residents, or would it be better to preserve our wetlands and endangered species, and keep this land available for all Marion residents to use for passive recreation?" Ms. Coggeshall said. "It's not about denying anybody anything, it's about protecting the wildlife and the wetlands. Right now, as it stands, it's available to everybody and the wetlands and box turtle are protected. People can still use it for passive recreation."
But William Washburn of the Marion Recreation Committee said they have been looking to replace the ball field that was lost when Sippican School expanded a few years ago and their programs have expanded to a point where another field is needed.
"The main reason we chose that site is it's land that the town owns already," Mr. Washburn said. "It's land that's contiguous to the park, so it would provide an existing rest room and parking. If we were to go around town and find another site to put a Little League field in, we'd have to buy a piece big enough for parking and facilities -- that would require maybe two to three acres. That's why we ended up at Washburn Park. As our programs grow, we need to expand and now is the time to do it. From the Recreation Committee's point of view, it's a win-win situation."
What's more disconcerting to Ms. Coggeshall is that an alternative site within Washburn Park was proposed by none other than ConCom Vice Chairman Jeffrey Oakes -- one of two ConCom members, along with Bruce Hebbel, who voted against the original NOI and a professional engineer by trade -- that would have a minimum impact on the habitat and wetlands.
But Mr. Washburn said Mr. Oakes' alternate plan would venture into adjacent property that is not town-owned and would cost significantly more to implement.
"His alternate location put us onto the Washburn Park Trust land, and we would have to add another road and put in additional parking," Mr. Washburn said. "It also would have created a situation where parents would have to park along the road. That was the issue we had with that (proposal)."
As for the environmental concerns raised by Ms. Coggeshall, Mr. Washburn noted they have been working closely with John Rockwell, Wetlands Specialist for the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program (NEP), who provided both technical assistance to the Recreation Committee and helped them with the permitting process.
While Mr. Rockwell declined comment on the issue, he noted: "The Recreation Committee has determined that the town needs a ball field and this is the site they've chosen."
But Ms. Coggeshall questions why Mr. Rockwell, a member of the town's Open Space Acquisition Committee and a Wetlands Specialist with the NEP, wouldn't be more concerned and protective of the wetlands site being targeted for the ball field -- a location where polluted runoff from pesticides used to grow the grass could potentially enter Buzzards Bay.
"(Mr. Rockwell) has been lax and casual in his response to the legal responsibilities involved in the protection and conservation of the wetlands," Ms. Coggeshall said. "During a January 2 hearing with the Department of Environmental Protection, Mr. Rockwell's plans were incomplete. They had not yet determined where the swale was going to be located to handle the runoff so it wouldn't enter Buzzards Bay. He then admitted that a swale would not handle it, it would have to be a pond area. That proves to me if we didn't contend this, it would have been designed with a swale and the wetlands wouldn't have been protected."
"I can understand their concerns," Mr. Washburn said. "I remember as a child growing up we had a lot behind us in the woods ... but they eventually built two houses and they still stand there today. Yeah, there's box turtles all over Marion, Mattapoisett and Rochester. If you want to go looking for box turtles, you better not build any more houses in southeastern Massachusetts."
Despite their opposition, two formal appeals and an alternate proposal, the original 3-2 ConCom vote stands and the Little League field project is set to move forward on the acre-and-a-half of wetlands as initially proposed.
But Ms. Coggeshall still thinks there are other options to consider.
"Building a ball field for children to use is a great idea so long as one is needed," Ms. Coggeshall said. "But destroying a necessary habitat for an endangered species ... to do so is irresponsible, especially when there are alternatives. It is extremely close to wetlands and even with the proposed drainage solution for the run off, it's still a threat to the surrounding wetlands and Buzzards Bay."
By Kenneth J. Souza