It is very inconvenient for Chelmsford’s top officials to acknowledge that the land behind Center Fire Station is, in fact, legally designated a public park and is supposed to be an open space conservation area for the enjoyment of all the residents.
Not only has the Eliopoulos Edifice obliterated the park, it has eliminated important watershed and created additional problems for Center Fire Station.
This could only have happened if the Board of Selectmen refused to uphold the legal interest that we all have in that land. Town Manager Paul Cohen and Town Counsel Kopelman & Paige, however, advised them to do just that, in order to protect the Planning Board’s decisions to grant the Eliopoulos development group multiple special permits and a site permit that flew in the face of multiple legal restrictions.
On May 11, 1978, 450 people packed Town Meeting to approve the sale of the then town-owned land into private hands, but with the proviso that the land behind Center Fire Station remain open space including a small park (except for construction that would resemble historical “outbuildings” that had been on the property when it was a farm). Remember, this parcel is in the historic district. The land was to be maintained as a public park, a stipulation that was officially acted on by the Planning Board at the time, and officially recorded into the deed.
Below is a contemporary news report from 1978 recording the Town Meeting vote:
In case you have trouble reading the above it states, “Dr. Currie [the purchaser] plans to renovate the Emerson House and develop the land around it as a small public park for community use... a pond on the property will be restored with the surrounding land made into a small, public park for community enjoyment. Dr. Currie [the purchaser] has agreed to a preservation restriction legally prohibiting any other use of the property in the future.”
That preservation restriction was indeed approved by various town boards and inserted into the deed. Although it wasn’t landscaped with trees, it was mowed and maintained, and residents used the property as a public park for decades. That, incidentally, also makes it a village green, another designation denied by today’s public officials.
Just because town officials did not enforce the stipulations that the parcel be landscaped, and haven't even enforced the legal requirement that it remain a public park and open space, doesn't change the fact that it's supposed to be "a Center Park, described by Currie as an idyllic, well-landscaped and maintained park-like facility for the enjoyment of the people of Chelmsford." [Lowell Sun, April 13, 1978]
Starting with the Town Manager, there has been a largely successful effort to disparage the notion that the land behind Center Fire Station has ever been or is supposed to be a public park. The logic seems to be that, if it’s privately owned it can’t be a public park. Well, Zuccotti Park is a similarly sized public park in Manhattan that is privately owned and maintained, and became famous when it was “occupied” by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The Town Manager was, by his own admission, unaware of these legal restrictions when he abdicated his responsibility to inquire into obtaining the land in February and March of 2009. Charged with the Permanent Buildings Committee with negotiating for the land, Cohen was unresponsive to repeated overtures by Eastern Bank officials and did not even discuss a possible price (around $50,000 to $100,000 as we now know) when he was repeatedly contacted by the bank in February and March.
At this point in time, it’s a major embarrassment that not only did the Town Manager forego an opportunity to protect the park from predatory (and, it would seem, illegal) development – he severely limited options to extend parking for Center Fire Station in the rear, and lost a valuable piece of land that could have been obtained for peanuts.
So multiple town officials are on hand as proxies for the Town Manager to shout down any public discussion of what really happened, most notably Planning Board member Colleen Stansfield, Open Space Stewards director Phil Stanway, and various town meeting reps including Fran McDougall and Peggy Dunn. These folks shout down any public discussion that the bank would have sold the park back to the town, that the land was ever dubbed “Center Park,” or that the land was a park or even a village green, even though it is legally designated as such and was utilized as such for over 30 years before and after the sale to Dr. Currie!
When historical facts are inconvenient, dictators try to erase them. The whole “9 North Road” scandal illustrates how brazenly dishonest our top officials have come to think they can be with us as residents and taxpayers. One way to check that dishonesty is to insist that the historically accurate facts are presented and that the law be upheld, and I will continue to work to do that. Another way, of course, is to elect challengers on the ballot April 3. Use your votes to speak truth to power.
Roland Van Liew