Florence’s Undefended Frontier
West Center St. Warfare:
Neighbors vs. Developer,
Don’t Forget the Lawyers
By Mike Kirby
The long-running bitter dispute between neighbors and
David Teece over his plans to develop his Maple Street
Florence property has taken still another legal twist.
The Northampton Planning Board, after earlier turning down
the developer's plans, approved a very similar plan on
May 12 after meeting in closed session with the city solicitor. Then on May 30, literally hours before the statutory deadline, Loretta Gougeon of West Center Street in Florence filed an appeal in Superior Court of the board’s action. A Land Court. suit is also pending in the zoning dispute and scheduled for trial in July.
The dispute dates back to Oct. 11, 2003, when loggers felled a stand of maples and other shade trees behind 52 Maple St, outraging homeowners along West Center Street, a short connector off Maple Street. The houses are a farrago of Victorians shoehorned into stubby econo-lots laid out for 19th century factory workers.
No one was on guard duty along the street that October Sunday in 2003. Fred Wellman and his wife, who live at 9 West Center, were down in Connecticut to visit their son; Loretta Gougeon, at 15 West Center, was running a tag sale down on Main Street near the family garage. They came home to find the neighborhood in an uproar. A crew with a Cotton Tree Service bucket truck was at work taking down the big old trees on the other side of the fence that sheltered their backyards. No one could have seen it coming. It was a well thought out, carefully calculated strike.
Caught by Surprise
None of the residents had the slightest hint that some kind of development plan was in the offing. There was no activity down at the Registry of Deeds, no filings with the Planning Board. The parcel had been owned for ages by Frederick J. Ostrowski, who lives in Palm Harbor, Fla. Ostrowski comes from an old family that used to own a great deal of land in Florence and the Hilltowns. Over the years he has been selling off parcels. Along the way he became partners with David Teece, the owner of Northampton Plumbing Supply. Teece probably called up Ostrowski in Florida and said, "Hey, I’ll give you $250,000 for the Maple Street parcel," and Ostrowski said "OK.” Maybe a purchase and sale agreement was initialed.
The problem with the lot from the developer's perspective were the mature shade trees ringing it to the south and west. They fit the buffer zone criteria to a “T.” The Zoning Board of Appeals, in an October, 2004 ruling , said: “Prior to October 1, 2003, the subject property located within the General Business (GB) district had a dense, mature screening that provided a buffer between it and the abutting properties south and west, complying with chapter 6.5 of the Zoning Ordinance.”
It was three months after the raid before the property changed ands. The new owner had not gone to the major tree firms in town to remove the trees. Annoying questions might have been asked; they might have gone to the building inspector for an okay. And maybe he wanted to do the job on the cheap. First, according to the neighbors, he sent down a couple of his employees with chain saws in a Northampton Plumbing Supply truck. They took down the trees and brush in the center of the lot.
Then, he hired a free-lancer, a state cop, Jeremy Cotton, to
take the trees down in the buffer zone. The work was done on a weekend when the city offices are closed. The price, according to Jeff Gougeon, was a quick $1,000 in cash. Jeremy borrowed equipment from his uncle, who runs Cotton Tree Service. The ironic part of this was the guy who helped Cotton tear all the trees down was a former friend of the Gougeon family.
Both men were well known down at Florence Towing. In their haste to wrap up the job, Jeremy Cotton overloaded and broke his uncle’s chipper. They took the broken piece of gear down to Florence Towing, and brother Bob Gougeon, who didn’t know what they were doing with it, welded it and got it running again for them. The two men haven’t been seen at Florence Towing since.
Loretta Gougeon immediately filed a complaint with the city building inspector, but for a while nothing happened. The first enforcement letter in the office file is dated Nov. 10, almost a month later. Later on a neighbor, upset at the mess next door would write Anthony Patillo, the building commissioner, angrily, “How come you turned my neighborhood into a dump?”
The city of Northampton is wide open to more nasty surprises like the one that hit West Center on that October morning in 2003, and it will probably happen again. It’s America, and people have a fierce messianic belief in their property rights, and they have armies of knights to fight for their right to clear-cut their property so they can maximize the number of units they can build on them.
Where there are 70-foot tall trees, a network of roots is extensive. If Teece had played by the rules and filed for site plan review, the development footprint might have been smaller. In the final version of the development approved May 12 by the planning board, the new two-story structure Teece is building comes right up to the 30 foot buffer zone in the rear of the property.
Similar Activity Happened Previously
The same thing happened back in 1988 when the owners of Savarese Chevrolet, at the corner of Bridge Road and North King Street, cleaned out all the trees and shrubs that sheltered the homes above them on Pinebrook Curve, and put in a bank of high-intensity lamps to deter theft on their lot.
There are divergent interests where commercial zones meet residential zones. I was told that an epic quarrel broke out between Teece and the West Center Street neighbors one afternoon, and the Savarese matter was raised with Teece. He knew about it.
No one at the building inspector’s office filed a stop order with the owner of record after the first weekend’s work, which might have spared the trees on the rear edge of the property. Old man Ed Cotton has a reputation for being a tree-hugger as of late because of his intervention on the side of people who wanted to save a tree on Hinckley Street, but the firm takes down trees, and that’s what his nephew did with equipment he had borrowed from his uncle. What the bulldozers and tree men had done was not easily undone.
The adjacent Tobin Manor housing for the elderly and its lights now loom over the neighborhood, and a six-foot high planting of evergreens that the building inspector approved; the ZBA saw as a pittance. They ordered him to plant a row of pretty substantial 15-foot high red oaks, along with smaller plantings. Most people in this area have their bedrooms on the second floor, and they have to look down to see the cute little line of evergreens and arbor vitae that the building commissioner approved as a buffer.
The lawyers and decision-makers around here, like Atty. Edward Etheredge, Teece, Patillo and the Mayor Higgins live in suburban enclaves. They could care less about whether neighbors in this area can sleep nights.
When the planning board turned down his earlier plan and the ZBA overruled the building commissioner’s planting plan, Teece hired Etheredge to file an appeal to both actions in land court. And now the battle was joined.
"I understand the anguish that the neighbors feel, but Mr. Teece made a mistake
and in my dealings with him on enforcement
he has not tried to shirk his responsibilities or
ignore my letters of enforcement.”
Anthony Patillo, Building Commissioner
It was no mistake. Teece has, over the years, received other letters of enforcement from the building commissioner. He owns a lot of property and has been involved in property development since the 1980s; he is a power in the Chamber of Commerce. He knows what the rules are. He is known for his impatience with city government; he is represented by competent counsel. Teece, interviewed in 1999 by the Gazette, was quoted as saying that "city departments often create obstacles rather than removing hurdles for businesses."
Biting the hand that feeds you.
Most of us would never have the nerve to sue the people who sign our paycheck, but David Teece’s legal representative, Atty. Etheredge, has no scruples about doing so. He has earned a lot of money from the city representing it over the last 20 years and yet has never been shy about putting Northampton mayors and city boards up against the wall if it suits his clients and himself. There’s always a very respectful silence when he rises up and speaks at the planning board. All the major powers in town hire him when they need help, including the city itself, which has kept him on retainer, in one matter or another, since 1988, sometimes even while he was suing the city.
When we look at the correspondence between Etheredge and Patillo on the Teece case, things are very friendly. All the letters to the neighborhood were formal and frosty. “Dear Mr., Dear Ms., Dear Mrs.” Letters and memos to Etheredge were chatty and homespun. It was always Dear Ed, or he’d cross out the salutation all together and write ‘Ed’ and circle it. Ed Etheredge is part of Northampton’s civic family, and so is Teece. There was a certain truculent note in the building commissioner’s replies to neighborhood complaints. Patillo didn’t like it when the Gougeons appealed to the ZBA, and he really didn’t like it when the ZBA voided his ruling and opted for stricter standards in the buffer zone. On Nov. 3, on the heels of the ZBA ruling, Patillo struck back at the Gougeons, citing them for “an unauthorized shed” on their property.
Now Etheredge is suing the ZBA for Teece, alleging that city zoning, and specifically Section 6.5 of the regulations that created a buffer zone between commercial and residential zones, amounts to an illegal taking of his property, and that the city requiring this buffer zone constitutes a violation of the Constitution of the United States and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. If he wins, the parking and the lights can go right up to fences all over town.
I’m surprised that the mayor doesn’t tell Etheredge to take a hike. But this is what he does. Clients hire him because he has access and the ear of planning professionals and the mayor. He is representing the city in the long drawn-out affair of Northampton versus the town of Williamsburg over the siting of the new water treatment plant.
The Teece case pits Etheredge against Atty. Janet Sheppard, the city solicitor, a decidedly strange arrangement, since the two lawyers have been working closely together for 18 years. One of them should have stepped aside. Not too long ago, they worked as co-counsels in two prominent cases, Warner v. Garden House at Look Park and Valley Aggregates v. Nejame et al. What Atty. Etheredge wants, Atty. Sheppard pretty much goes along with.
In the 1995-1996 period, she assented to Cooley Dickinson Hospital, represented by Etheredge, building hospital parking on Smith Vocational School land. Currently, she went along with all the legal arguments advanced by Etheredge to support the educational overlay district for Smith College, which drastically cuts the oversight and powers of neighborhood zoning in the areas surrounding the college and is headed for City council approval.
So we have a lawyer close to the mayor, working for the city, who is actively pushing to undercut the power and effectiveness of its code enforcement boards. One wonders how effective Janet Sheppard will be in arguing the case for the ZBA and the neighbors when the case comes before the Land Court in July. Recently, when the planning board was considering the latest Teece plan, she came in, uninvited I suspect, and told the planning board to go into executive session if it wanted to know what was happening with this case legally.
The reporters and neighbors left without a protest. We'll never know what she said to them, but when the board came back, the same planning board that previously voted 4-2 to deny Teece site plan approval, voted unanimously to approve a very similar plan. As a result, on May 30, Loretta Gougeon, through her Springfield attorney Thomas A. Kenefick III, appealed the decision to Superior Court, alleging that the action of the planning board was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Rebuffed by the Building Commissioner
Why didn't our building commissioner inspector go right to court on this matter in 2003 and order the work stopped? He didn’t like it when the Gougeons appealed to the ZBA, and he really didn’t like it when the ZBA set aside his ruling and opted for stricter standards in the buffer zone. One day I was in the building commissioner’s office going through the file on the matter, and he was next to me going through a set of plans for a big building of some sort. He glowered at me when I asked him if we could talk; he told me to put my questions in writing, and he would respond in writing. The next day his staff told me that the matter was in litigation, and I should see Janet Sheppard, the city attorney. But the door at her Center Street office was closed and locked.
And now the battle is joined. No one is talking on advice of their lawyers. In January of this year Jeff and Loretta Gougeon traveled to Boston with their lawyer, Atty. Kenefick. The Gougeons didn’t have much confidence that Janet Sheppard would win their case, and tried to have their own
The Gougeons were disturbed and a little shocked when they arrived in court and found the city’s lawyer, who was supposed to be defending the neighborhood and the ZBA, sitting with Teece’s lawyer, Atty. Etheredge.
“I got there” said Jeff Gougeon, “and here Etheredge and Sheppard were sitting together, acting like good friends. Sheppard had her hand on his shoulder. Hey, I thought, I thought you were supposed to be representing us.”
“Joking” said Loretta. “It was fun and games. I don’t know if they came out from Northampton together, but they sure acted like it. They were obviously good friends, and were having a good time together. I wasn’t too happy, thinking how much this day was costing me, what with my lawyer’s fees, parking, mileage and tolls.”
From out here, it looks like the city is not going to stick up for the neighbors, and will take a graceful dive when it comes to defending the ZBA’s attempt to make buffer zones work for the residential areas of the city. It looks from here if you have the right connections, you get away with things in Northampton.
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