CHATHAM — Though they said they would investigate the possibility of planting shrubs to screen the view of the Chase Park labyrinth from a neighboring house, selectmen this week rejected the idea that activities at the park are disruptive to the neighborhood.
Selectmen this week heard from Ernest “Tripp” Walen, who owns the house next to the labyrinth and who complained to the parks and recreation commission in July about what he sees as excessive use of the park.
“It was a very nice park,” he said. In recent years, trees have been cut down to make way for the labyrinth, and “a lot more people have been coming in” to attend events there, Walen said. “They park along the street. The parking lot’s not that large,” he added. Walen complained that a planned handicap-accessible path is designed to be five feet wide, not the minimum three feet. But mostly, Walen said he and other neighbors don’t like when improvements are made to the park without their knowledge.
“We never hear about it until it’s a done deal,” he said. Since he’s come to live in town, “I can’t catch a break here,” he said.
Walen said he does not object to the presence of the windmill, which is operated a few times each year.
“It has historical significance to the town of Chatham. The labyrinth does not,” he said. The labyrinth attracts visitors who park on the privately owned roads around Chase Park, he said. The labyrinth resembles a round patio “with people walking in circles, as if they’re picketing,” he added.
Walen said he was not allowed to detail his concerns at a parks and recreation commission meeting, and feels he and his neighbors have no input into what happens there.
“I know I can look at the agenda,” he said. “But if we’re not allowed to talk, what voice do we have?”
A petition signed by a few concerned neighbors asked selectmen to investigate the gift of Avis Chase that resulted in the park, and Selectman Dean Nicastro said town officials did so. “It just says it’s a park,” he said. A resident of the same neighborhood, Nicastro said he would have preferred that the labyrinth be located elsewhere, but it was properly approved and is not likely to be removed. While he says he respects neighbors’ concerns, “It’s like buying a house next to the airport and complaining because of aeronautical activities there,” Nicastro said.
Because the park is in a residential area, Nicastro said he would not oppose any plan to have the parks and recreation department notify abutters of any major changes scheduled for the park. But no major events are scheduled for Chase Park other than the annual Festival of the Arts, periodic labyrinth events and windmill open houses.
Selectman Jeffrey Dykens agreed that town notifications are a fair idea, and said if it is possible to increase the vegetative screen around the labyrinth, that would be acceptable. “We need to listen to each other and compromise,” he said.
“This is a place where there’s cultural experiences happening, a place for people to gather, which is a good thing for the community,” Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said. The buffer is worth considering, but “the labyrinth is not going to be moved,” she said.
Board member Cory Metters urged concerned neighbors to sign up to receive parks and recreation commission agendas by email, but he rejected a call to prohibit new events or activities in the park in the future. “Using the park is a good thing,” he said.
Parks and recreation commission Chairman Meredith Fry said Chase Park is a resource for the entire community, and it is the job of the commission to ensure that activities there are appropriate for the area.
“We have been very diligent about that,” she said. Fry accused Walen of being a “bully” who sees the park as an extension of his own property. The labyrinth is designed to be a contemplative, quiet place, she noted.
Frank Messina, one of the volunteers who maintain and operate the Godfrey grist mill, said he understands the desire to plant trees to screen the park from neighbors, but “the windmill really doesn’t like trees.” While the mill is operational, it is so surrounded by trees and houses that “now we need like 20 knot winds to grind corn,” he said with a laugh. Messina said while he initially opposed the labyrinth, it now coexists with the mill without any trouble.
Former selectman Florence Seldin was on the board when it accepted the labyrinth as a gift from the Chatham Clergy Association for the town’s 300th anniversary, and said the success of a park can be measured by the number of people who enjoy it.
“I don’t think it’s been abused. I think it’s been well used,” she said.
One of the organizers of the labyrinth, the Rev. Anne Bonney, said the space is designed to encourage peace and unity, and is a quiet activity. In addition to solstice walks, the labyrinth has weekly walks organized by Pilgrim’s Landing, and the small number of participants use the public parking lot.
Pilgrim’s Landing board Chair Lisa McNeill said her organization pays to maintain the labyrinth and planted a peace garden near the edge of the park property. They proposed holding a “unity festival” in October but dropped the idea after learning “there would be a lot of anxiety in the neighborhood,” she said. “We are trying to be good neighbors,” McNeill said.
Davis questioned whether the park is an inappropriate place for a unity festival.
“You should ask the public about that,” she quipped.
Shattuck Place resident David Carter said Chase Park is well maintained and he walks his dog there several times a day. “If there’s more than 10 people in the park, it’s rare,” he said. Carter disagreed that the use of the park is becoming more intense. The Easter egg hunt is no longer held there, nor is the Art of Charity auction. “If anything, the park is underutilized,” he said.
Resident Norma Avellar said Chase Park is there for the public, not for “a few neighbors.” In the 1960s and 1970s, police frequented the park to keep an eye on young people who gathered there after dark. “They were not playing croquet,” she said. Avellar urged neighbors to “stop complaining about everything” and plant shrubs or erect a fence if they need better screening.
“Or even better, get to know the people who go to the park.”
Selectmen took no vote, but advised the parks and recreation department to send notices when any changes are proposed for parks, and to consider low plantings near the property line by the labyrinth.