, Gloucester, MA

January 23, 2013

Letter: Voters, not selectmen, should decide on Conomo

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — To the Editor:

I am writing in response to recent coverage of the Essex Conomo Point public planning presentations:

Lori Henderson’s question at the recent public forum about removing a few houses at Conomo Point is key: “Why stop there?”

From the beginning of the process now playing out from 25 years or so ago, residents at Town Meetings made clear that:

The town should get out of the business of being a landlord;

The property at Conomo Point should be held in common for the recreational and open space use of all townspeople, not just a few.

First, mixed residential and recreational usage is not an appealing or practical outcome for the long run. It will lead to the same sorts of conflicts we have seen for decades, and it significantly diminishes the value of the open space and recreational uses that do take place.

Second, the equity issues involved in leaving some homes there should be seen as insurmountable. Do Essex residents really want the town be in the business of creating more valuable waterfront residences for a chosen few while tearing down the homes of the rest? Does anyone else see more lawsuits coming with this approach?

Further, the specter of “business” use by the town — that is, the Board of Selectmen — is too awful to imagine. What Board of Selectmen (bar none, including the board I sat on in the 1990s) would you trust to decide which uses are acceptable?

Would they stop at rowboat or kayak rentals? How about making movies? The Selectmen thought they could approve that on their own at Centennial Grove. Can you imagine a peaceful Tuck’s Point-type scene co-existing both with homes and businesses interspersed, on the small acreage at the Point? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a relatively quiet space on the water, without a lot of lights at night to block the stars, with benches, play areas, areas to fish from, and nice walks, a landing float and dinghy docks?

We now have more than $4 million in the bank from the sale of southern Conomo properties. Surely we can afford to forgo “business ventures” that would end up ruining what we are trying to achieve?

Some talk has been heard that the Board of Selectmen would like to designate some of the houses to be owned by the town and rented out seasonally? Or to build a hotel!

What is it about the town not being a landlord does the Board of Selectmen not understand? Of course there will be “bedroom police;” there would have to be if the town intends to honor its legal obligations under Title V.

Finally, Mark Lynch comments that “previous decisions by town officials opted to preserve as many houses as possible...”

The Town Meeting did not make this decision. The Selectmen did it — without any public discussion at the time.

Lynch warns that the Selectmen have decided that only they need to approve any Master Plan for Conomo Point. While the attorneys hired by the Board of Selectmen may advise that the board can take this authority upon itself, the long tradition of Town Meeting government does not support this approach.

When a decision is controversial or open to conflict-of-interest or will affect major assets of the Town, as these decisions certainly are, Essex has always, in the past, seen the Annual Town Meeting as the proper decision point.

Remember, it only takes 2 out of 3 individuals to have a majority of the Board of Selectmen. Are town residents really willing to let two individuals — any two individuals — make decisions of this magnitude on behalf of us all?

If the Selectmen don’t believe in the Town Meeting form of government is the best way to make these difficult decisions, perhaps they should initiate a charter review process. Or better yet, put their plans for Conomo Point to a binding referendum on the next municipal ballot.

When Selectmen, with the assistance of compliant state legislators, can decide to go around the state public bidding law and ignore previous Town Meeting votes, it is hard to have confidence in any process that doesn’t involve a ballot vote.