Chase Park, Labyrinth Use Prompts Complaints By Neighbors

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Recreation

The labyrinth in Chase Park. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Chase Park neighbors are concerned about what they see as its escalating use, including regular events held at the labyrinth at the rear of the property.

In a sometimes contentious meeting July 16, park and recreation commission members countered that the park, located off Cross Street, is not heavily used and is open to all members of the public.

“It is a park and it is for the entire community,” said chair Meredith Fry.

The discussion on use of the park will move to the board of selectmen, which is tentatively scheduled to take up the issue at its Aug. 12 meeting.

Two developments sparked the response from neighbors: a request by Pilgrim's Landing to hold a one-day “Unity Festival” in the park in the fall and the addition of a water line and spigot at the rear of the property, near the labyrinth and grist mill.

Park abutter Ernest Walen questioned whether the spigot was installed to benefit Pilgrim's Landing, a nonprofit organization that voluntarily maintains the labyrinth. He said he saw someone not affiliated with the town hook up a hose to the spigot and water seeded lawn near the labyrinth.

“Who's in charge there, the town or Pilgrim's Landing?” he said.

Park Director Dan Tobin said the spigot was put in by the water department at the request of his department after sewer lines were installed between the labyrinth and grist mill to avoid digging up the private Shattuck Lane. The lack of water service has made it difficult to keep lawn and plantings established in that section of the park, Tobin said. The closest water is the rest rooms at the pétanque court near the Cross Street entrance to the park.

“It's simply a spigot, not a whole involved water service,” Tobin said. At the annual town meeting, voters approved $55,000 in community preservation funds for a new accessible path from the parking area along Shattuck Place to the mill and labyrinth area, and the availability of water will help in restoring lawn area when that project is completed, he added.

Pilgrim's Landing planned the “Unity Festival” for October. Even though the park commission approved the request to hold the event in Chase Park at the July 16 meeting, the group has decided not to move forward with it.

The original intent, said Pilgrim's Landing board of directors chair Lisa McNeill, was to celebrate diversity and interconnectedness with storytelling, community arts projects and labyrinth walks. Rather than be a source of contention, however, the board decided to cancel the festival and will instead hold a “Unity Walk” at the labyrinth on Oct. 5.

“We'll be very respectful and mindful of parking and traffic and all of the things we need to do,” she said. “Unity is a theme we really want to put out in the world; we feel like people are really looking for that.”

Pilgrim's Landing has no formal agreement with the town to maintain the labyrinth, but just as volunteers run the town-owned grist mill, the nonprofit group provides routine care for the labyrinth and maintains a garden nearby, Tobin said. Pilgrim's landing board of directors member Anne Bonney, who was also co-founder and coordinator of the labyrinth, said the group recently hired a contractor to reset the pavers and reseal the labyrinth after the sewer project, and has in the past paid to have garden areas around it watered by a contractor. Members of the group regularly remove trash from the area and sweep the labyrinth, she said.

At the July 16 meeting, Walen said the labyrinth creates too much activity at the park. Reading from a letter he said was also signed by other abutters, he requested that the commission “curtail ever-increasing use of Chase Park for all manner of activities by groups that have no connection with the town...The activities, although invariably characterized by sponsors as peaceful and tranquil, have the opposite effect on the immediate neighborhood.” He said activities at the labyrinth take place at all hours of the day and into the evening, and the parking area along Shattuck Lane is too small. “Parking and foot traffic frequently spills over to private ways surrounding the park,” he said.

Because only the water line issue, and not the general use of the park or labyrinth, was on the agenda, Fry cut off Walen and told him he must request that the item by placed on a future agenda.

Pilgrim's Landing board members said that Walen, whose property backs up to the labyrinth, has disrupted their events in the past. Bonney said in one instance he was verbally abusive and she filed a police report because she felt threatened.

Walen did not respond when contacted for comment.

Other area residents said they were concerned about escalating use of the park, including the recent addition of a croquet court, which was also paid for by community preservation funds approved at town meeting. Events such as the now-canceled Unity Fest close off access to their property; while they have become used to the Festival of the Arts, held over a weekend each August for more than 40 years by the Creative Arts Center, the “creeping” use of the park is a cause of concern, they said.

“We'd really like to get some clarity on some broad thinking you guys have on who can use the park,” said one neighbor.

Other than the Festival of the Arts, there are no regular large events held in Chase Park, Tobin said. Pilgrim's Landing holds Monday night labyrinth walks every Monday between July 8 and Aug. 26, two solstice walks, a Thanksgiving walk that benefits the local food pantry, and several educational programs and workshops. No fees are charged for labyrinth walks, Pilgrim's Landing board members said, and most attract about a dozen people, except for the solstice walks, which can sometimes attract a larger number.

Tobin said permits are not required for small groups to use the park, but officials like to be informed when there will be gatherings of 25 more more, as well as what he called any “active” events. The park often hosts weddings as well, but not receptions; for large weddings, the park department requires coordination with police on parking. The grist mill is also open to the public three afternoons a week during the summer.

“We don't even hold the Easter egg hunt there anymore,” he said.

The 3.5 acre park was left to the town in 1953 by Avis Chase, whose will stipulated that it be dedicated to her husband, Silmon Chase. She also left money in a trust for maintenance of the park. The Chases were a prominent Chatham family who owned several properties in town; Avis Chase left three houses in the Old Village to the YWCA of Philadelphia for use for women from the city. A successor organization won the right to continue to use the houses as summer retreats following a court battle with the Boston YWCA, which sought to take control of the properties.

The labyrinth was a project of the Chatham Clergy Association as a gift to the town on its 300th anniversary in 2012. The clergy provided the seed money and Bonney, Dawn Tolley and Kathe Rhinesmith brought the project to fruition, getting approval of the park and recreation commission and selectmen for construction of the labyrinth in Chase Park. Neighbors were also notified of the plans, Bonney said. The structure cost about $50,000, with 80 percent of the money donated by community members.

Pilgrim's Landing took on the maintenance of the labyrinth and hosts a website, www.chathamlabyrinth.com, and calendar for organizing labyrinth events. While they advertise Pilgrim's Landing as the “home” of the labyrinth, board members made it clear that the labyrinth belongs to the town and is for use by all. Pilgrim's Landing is not a religious organization, they added, and walking the labyrinth is a spiritual, not a religious experience.

“It may not fit into everyone's idea of what Chatham is about,” said McNeill, “but we can't let that dissuade us from doing work we're called to do.”

At the July 16 park commission meeting, Selectmen Cory Metters said the Pilgrim's Landing Unity Festival request was the opening to have the broader discussion on use of Chase Park “for anyone, anytime.”