Another Point of View
Can Historic Northampton
Be Trusted After Selling
Property on Dewey Court?
By Chivas Sandage
My YES vote for the Community Preservation Act (CPA) might have become a NO vote Tuesday, thanks to Historic Northampton’s recent yellow postcard in my mai. Endorsement is one thing—but the ironic juxtaposition of that organization’s name just above the CPA’s stated goals to “save our disappearing open space,” “preserve our valued history” and “keep Northampton affordable for all those who live here” made me cringe.
The possibility of Historic Northampton getting its disloyal hands on even a penny of the CPA’s potential $1 million a year revenue presents a significant conflict of interest.
A resident of downtown Northampton’s Dewey Court, I watched Historic Northampton ignore the 1998 will of long-time resident Hortense Clapp Pollard, who bequeathed her home and a plot of lovely, maple-filled “woods” between Dewey Court and Old South Street to Historic Northampton with the condition that it not be altered. Her will stated that no “other buildings or structures be erected or placed on the premises.”
Pollard’s mistake was in trusting the non-profit organization. After her death, as Historic Northampton worked to get around the will’s clause by parceling and selling Pollard’s woods, a grass-roots committee formed to protect the green space. However, their efforts failed and it sold to Jordi Herold for $100,000.
The green space, which, with a few benches and some gentle landscaping could have become a rare downtown park for the community (an idea the city considered but decided in favor of it’s own preference for tax revenue), now sports Herold’s relocated, renovated, historic Alvah Littlefield home, originally bought for $1 and selling for $1.2 million—a price tag that promises to raise the property taxes on this block of modest homes.
Thanks to Historic Northampton, though I once dreamed of buying the home I currently rent, I’ll never afford it now. The postcard’s words, “a place where people of all income levels can live,” echo in my head everyday as I walk past the small mansion that my 10-year-old daughter compares to a beautiful person who cares only about oneself.
How can Historic Northampton be trusted to “keep Northampton a place where fields and forests are more valuable than subdivisions” when they deceived one of their most generous benefactors, sold one of the last patches of downtown “woods” to a local mogul who is trying to get richer under the guise of “preserving the past,” forcing property taxes and already-overpriced real estate to rise?
I called Lilly Lombard, co-chair of the CPA’s steering committee, to ask her the above question. Lombard said, “I don’t see a conflict of interest, although there was this one very unfortunate case.”
While she believes Pollard’s wishes for her woods were not respected and Lombard was disappointed with Historic Northampton’s final solution to that controversy, she feels “these things need to be considered case by case” and that we must remember not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
She clarified that Historic Northampton “won’t be entrusted with any funds” from the CPA, although it could potentially have a representative on the Community Preservation Committee (CPC), which would be solely responsible for proposing projects.
A call to Historic Northampton confirmed that its board members have served on the Northampton Historic Commission, which is one of five assured representatives on the CPC. Regardless, Lombard strongly asserted that the CPA could be trusted to vigilantly work to preserve open space.
Although Historic Northampton has lost credibility with many in the community, and the organization’s flyer urging residents to vote YES infuriated me—especially those of us who are reminded daily of Pollard’s denied last wishes for her maple trees—after talking to Lombard,
I’ve decided to still vote YES for the CPA, in hopes that it can protect other green spaces in Northampton, before it’s too late.
Chivas Sandage’s essays have appeared in Hampshire Life Magazine, Ms. Magazine and Same-Sex Marriage: The Moral and Legal Debate (Prometheus Books, '04).
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