Etheredge 1, Warner 0
Abutter Drops Garden House Suit
By Mike Kirby
Maybe he should have seen it coming. In October of 2000, Edwin (Ted) Warner, retired county hospital administrator and abutter to Look Park, filed a suit against the park, its trustees, and its for-profit corporation for selling alcohol at the Garden House in a residential neighborhood.
Warner’s suit claimed operations at the Garden House violated local zoning restrictions.
One of the main issues that Warner tackled in his suit was the planning board’s decision to treat, for purposes of zoning, the new function facility as a community center, a decision that even Atty. Edward Etheredge, counsel for the park, was unhappy with.
The suit has staggered through the court system for four and a half years. As a result of Warner’s action, Look Park scrapped its for-profit corporation, and created a non-profit entity to run the Garden House. There have been a lot of motions, some decisions favoring Warner, a trial, an appeal, and finally the transfer of the case to land court in Springfield. On Aug. 20, 2002, the Superior Court annulled the planning board decision, but then the case went to Springfield and died there in April of this year when Warner ultimately withdrew his suit.
It was an expensive venture for Warner. The paperwork generated in the Superior Court case was three and half inches thick; there were interrogatories, summons, and the trial. There is probably an equivalent amount of paper down at Land Court. I don't know how many billable hours there are in an inch of paperwork, but it mounts up. All this lead to bad blood between the Look Park trustees, Warner and the mayor and touched off an angry editorial in the Gazette.
In the meantime, Warner decided to sell most of his land off 20 Bridge Road just across from the entrance to Look Park to developer John Chakalos, who planned to build a 46 unit luxury townhouse project for adults 55 years old or older, called Bear Hill
The development plan first came before the planning board in February, and Atty. Etheredge showed up at the hearing with some questions about the new development and how it would affect the park and the traffic ‘roundabout’ that was being planned for the Bridge Road/North Main Street intersection. At the February meeting Etheredge was “reserving judgment” on the proposed development, but noted that the pending Warner litigation against the Garden House and its “unresolved tension” made coming to an agreement difficult.
When the issue came back in front of the planning board on March 24, Etheredge and Look Park came out against the Warner development because its exit road was too close to the proposed roundabout. But the planning board approved a special permit for the development by a unanimous vote. On April 4, about a week and a half later, Look Park went to Land Court in Springfield and this time it was the park suing the planning board for exceeding its authority and failing to demand a required traffic study for the development. A few weeks later, Warner abruptly withdrew his nearly five-year-old suit and Look Park withdrew its counter suit on April 27. End of story.
Well, there was a traffic study. Not a big study, but Berkshire Design forecast the traffic impact: 10 trips an hour in the peak period, which is not a big deal. It was an age 55-plus development, so it doesn't generate the trips a normal development does, it adjoined the park and the bike trail, so the city waived the full-scale study. And the board's action was unanimous.
The paperwork on the Etheredge suit is pretty thin, and not too convincing, but as a bargaining instrument it doesn't have to be. I don't think any judge pre-screens suits to throw out frivolous ones; the act of filing the action triggers the whole laborious time-consuming process of the law. Bleak House, in other words, where everyone is held hostage by demon process.
This is the way the big boys play. Bang, bang, suit, countersuit, appeal, counter appeal, and the only question that hangs in the air now that it is all over, was what possessed Warner to push ahead with this lengthy and expensive legal action that brought him into open warfare with his abutter, and then at the same time, opt to develop his land and put the park in an ideal situation to play tit for tat and delay his development.