A proposed $40 million redevelopment of the Three County Fairgrounds in Northampton is at the center of a battle brewing between abutters and state and city officials who have supported and promoted the project. That battle, in which some city residents claim to be victims of a covert planning process involving city officials, has recently spilled over into the city’s mayor’s race.
Maria Tymoczko, whose land abuts the fairgrounds, is a former city councilor. For the last year, Tymoczko and her attorney, Michael Pill,have been in litigation with the City of Northampton, seeking access to email correspondence between the city’s economic development director and a number of people associated with the fairgrounds revelopment. In effect, Tymoczko’s lawsuit alleges that city officials have actively sought to keep residents out of the process.
“What’s going on here,” Pill told the Advocate, “is exactly the kind of thing the Occupy Wall Street protesters are fighting against: local politicians putting together business deals with the city’s elite. Government in effect conspiring with the rich folks to shove a plan that’s good for them down the throats of the little people.”
While the discussion of a possible redevelopment began under former Mayor Clare Higgins, Higgins’ decision to leave office last month landed City Council President and mayoral candidate David Narkewicz in the role of acting mayor. Tymoczko seized on the opportunity to publicly question whether the new, if only temporary mayor would change policies. On September 19, Tymoczko wrote Narkewicz asking, “As mayor are you going to continue the covert methods of government of your predecessor, Mayor Clare Higgins?”
Upon receiving a copy of Tymoczko’s letter—a letter, she says, that has so far gone unanswered—the Advocate asked both Narkewicz and his opponent in the mayor’s race, Michael Bardsley, for their thoughts on the issues she raised.
Bardsley, who has been supportive of Tymoczko’s effort to obtain what she believes are public records, as well as her broader effort to compel the state Department of Environmental Protection to study the potential environmental impact of the proposed project, did not respond to the Advocate’s inquiry.
Narkewicz responded in person and at length, reaffirming the city’s existing position with regard to Tymoczko’s public records request and endorsing the project generally. “The fairgrounds are important to the city, and it’s important the city supports its redevelopment,” Narkewicz said in an interview with the Valley Advocate last week. “We need to help do the work that keeps them around for another 100 years.”
Narkewicz also said that Tymoczko was not a supporter of his and suggested that her reason for making the letter public may have been political.
Before Northampton was known as the Paradise City, it was the Meadow City.
In a bend of the Connecticut river, at the foot of the northern slopes of the Holyoke Range is a vast swath of flood plain filled with farming fields. As you drive past Northampton on Interstate 91, those meadows are easier to see than the city to the west. Caught between the highway and the city, the Three County Fairgrounds stands on the border between urban and rural.
Established in 1887 by the Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden Agriculture Society, the Three County Fairgrounds were originally intended as a place to celebrate and showcase the work of the region’s farmers from both sides of the river. As stated on the society’s website, the guiding purpose was (and is): “To promote agriculture, agricultural education, and agricultural science in the Commonwealth.”
Times and economic circumstances have changed, though. To keep the 57-acre fairgrounds running, organizers have diversified their offerings. Blue ribbons are still handed out for local agriculture, but instead of marveling at the size of a local farmer’s dairy cow, most fairgoers now clamor to catch a glimpse of a trained Siberian tiger or a car-crushing monster truck.
Old timers remember when they could spend an afternoon placing wagers on the horse races there. You can still see the betting booths underneath the grandstands.
In July 2008, the board that oversees the privately held fairgrounds held a public meeting at which a representative from a Memphis, Tennessee-based design firm presented a plan for a $40 million dollar overhaul, replacing the facility currently used for the Paradise City Arts Festival and other events with an all-season conference center.
To take on such a big and important project, the board formed the Fairground Redevelopment Corporation, made up of city officials, members of the Chamber of Commerce, and representatives from the fairground’s own board.
With city officials not only on the Fairgrounds Redevelopment Corporation but actively promoting the project, was the project still a private affair?
Because city officials are members of the redevelopment corporation, Tymoczko and her lawyer have argued that the public has a right to planning correspondences between the city and fairground officials. Because the group that owns the fairgrounds, as well as the members of the Chamber of Commerce, are not public officials, the city has argued these documents are private.
Even though it’s been over a decade since she sat on the City Council herself, Maria Tymoczko told the Valley Advocate last week, she still makes it “a habit of keeping my eye on what’s going on agendas of various municipal meetings. If something interesting or controversial is being discussed, I try to attend.”
This is how she came to attend a Conservation Commission meeting in the fall of 2009. The commissioners were being asked to determine whether engineering plans for the new fairground development would be environmentally safe, and if so, approve them.
The public meeting was announced on email lists and notice boards. To Tymoczko’s knowledge, no special effort was made to notify abutters or neighbors who may be impacted by the plan.
At the meeting, developers walked the commissioners through the first phase of their plans to re-imagine the 194-year-old fairgrounds. To accommodate the large new development with its conference center, the final $40 million plan would include substantial plumbing, paving and drainage enhancements, they said. According to the developers, when completed, the new facility would generate 1,600 more car trips a day; water use would increase by 1,400 gallons a day; waste water would increase by more than 3,500 gallons a day.
Because the fairgrounds are located in a flood plain, building in the area has always required special attention to water runoff. The site plans put before the Conservation Commission that night indicated there was a swale—a shallow depression—into which storm runoff might be channeled.
“I knew there wasn’t a swale there,” Tymoczko told the Advocate. Without any depression for the water to run into, “the water would flow directly into the northeast corner of my property,” she said.
Tymoczko said she made this point three times at the meeting, and she was only heard when then-Ward 3 City Councilor Angela Plassman insisted her constituent be recognized.
According to Tymoczko, after hearing the abutters’ concerns, the city’s economic development director Teri Anderson still urged the commission to approve the site plans. According to Tymoczko, Anderson told the commission, “This [redevelopment project] is the highest priority for the city.”
Subsequent on-site reviews of the topography by city planners confirmed Tymoczko’s claim that there was no swale to receive the water. To further complicate matters, planners found that water drainage for the project would likely impact nearby wetlands, which fall under special environmental protections in the Commonwealth.
“Meaning,” Tymoczko said, “what they were planning and what the commission approved was plainly illegal.”
Despite the drainage issues that might threaten wetlands, the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs ruled in December, 2009 that the fairgrounds project would not need an environmental impact study.
Subsequently, in March 2010, Northampton’s Conservation Committee approved one part of the proposed redevelopment plan—the building of three new barns on the site. Since these structures were replacing existing ones, systems were already in place to handle the impact their infrastructure would make. Before more extensive construction could begin, a drainage solution needed to be approved that would meet the needs of the entire development.
Fairground planners presented their revised schematics to the Conservation Commission for approval in November 2010. This time they proposed that water drainage be handled by the underground William Street Brook.
“That brook has been an issue for over 30 years,” Tymoczko said, “and it already has flooding problems that affect around 40 abutters. A study was done a while ago that said no more water should be added to it.”
The William Street Brook alternative received the unanimous blessing of the Conservation Commission, but was ultimately stymied when Tymoczko and a number of other Northampton residents, including former City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michael Bardsley, appealed the decision.
Tymoczko told the Advocate she wanted to see the correspondence between the city and the fairgrounds to better understand how the redevelopment plans had progressed so far without consideration of the impact on abutters’ properties.
“I wanted to reconstruct their line of thinking,” she said.
When she asked for emails detailing the planning process, however, she says fairground and city officials told her such deliberations were private, privileged information. Making the confidential documents public could expose financial information and trade secrets that could affect the fairground’s ability to compete.
“Because Teri Anderson represented the city in the Redevelopment Corporation,” Tymoczko told the Advocate, “and she kept this correspondence on her computer at City Hall, these documents are covered by the Public Records law.”
According to a brief filed by Pill, while in court last August before Judge Cornelius J. Moriarty II, Anderson requested an in camera review by the court of the documents she was withholding. She also agreed to produce a log of all the documents in question which would indicate why certain ones were redacted or held back. Such a review would allow the court to determine whether the documents should be privileged information or not.
Instead of an in camera review , however, the city provided Pill’s client with a selection of the documents they were seeking. City Solicitor Elaine Reall wrote Pill saying that “we consider production in this matter at an end.”
As Pill explained to the Advocate, one of the emails included in what Tymoczko received from Anderson was an email from local businessman Charles Bowles, who is a member of the Chamber of Commerce. The copy of that email is heavily redacted. Pill says he and his client have also received copies of some of the same emails, including the one written by Bowles, from “confidential sources.” In comparing the two, Pill says, he and his client believe the city is redacting far more than public records law permits.
For example, Bowles wrote, “As far as the planning board process is concerned, I talked with [attorney] Ed Etheredge today about the appeal issue. His take on this was, if we go for site plan approval and it is appealed we can proceed at our [own] peril. But, if we go for [a] special permit and it is appealed we are dead in the water until the appeal is satisfied. I would recommend we hire Mr. Etheredge.”
“Everything about Etheredge is redacted, crossed out,” Pill said, “with a note about how that information is protected by attorney-client privilege. But if they hadn’t hired Etheredge yet, and they’d sent the email to 14 other people, how can it be privileged?”
In her letter to acting Mayor Narkewicz, Tymoczko wrote, “You should be aware that the materials transmitted [by the city] to my attorney were very sparse and did not even include a sheaf of correspondence from the summer of 2010 involving Teri Anderson that my attorney received from privileged sources. In addition to the letters that he has in his possession, we have verified knowledge of a great deal of other correspondence that would also fall under the request for materials that… [the city has] refused to release.”
Acting Mayor Narkewicz began his interview with the Advocate by stating that he was “fully committed to obeying public record laws.” He also said, “I’d only been in office a matter of days when I received Maria’s letter, and I needed time to research the issue. I wanted to get answers and formulate a response before replying to her.”
To that end, Narkewicz said he’d been doing his homework.
“I’ve discussed the matter with the city solicitor,” he said, “and I’ve talked to Teri Anderson.” He reaffirmed the solicitor’s view that Anderson had complied, and the public records request had been satisfied.
Because the issue was under litigation and the incidents in question had happened before he became mayor, he said he couldn’t offer more information than that.
Narkewicz said he felt the conflict had occurred out of confusion over whether or not the redevelopment plans were public or private. Having city officials as voting members of the Fairground Redevelopment Corporation he saw as the sticking point.
“I’ve contacted the general manager of the fairgrounds, Bruce Shallcross,” he said, “and I’ve suggested that city officials not be formal members of the redevelopment board, but act in an ex-officio capacity, offering advice, but not making decisions.” He pointed to other city organizations, such as the Academy of Music, which have similar arrangements.
Narkewicz said he will hold a meeting to discuss his plan to remove city officials from the Fairgrounds Redevelopment Corporation and other development issues next week. Narkewicz said he has asked Anderson and other city officials not to attend that meeting.
Responding to the question that opened Tymoczko’s letter—would he continue the “covert methods of government” of his predecessor?—Narkewicz said he did not share that view of the previous administration’s governing style. In either case, he said his approach would be open.
“I was asked at a debate recently if I could have gone back in time and been mayor when the plans for a hotel in Pulaski Park were first presented, would I have handled it differently?” he said. “I responded that I would have started by putting up a sign in the park which read, ‘Ideas Wanted.'”
Before deciding on a direction, he would have gone through a process that first determined the goals of the project and what was most appropriate. Such a process would have included, he said, all stakeholders, including the general public.
For his part, attorney Pill says that, since the acting mayor wasn’t involved in this situation when it happened, he doesn’t understand why Narkewicz doesn’t just “walk into Anderson’s office and tell her to fork over those documents. No skin off his nose. What is the city trying to hide?”