Published in the July 22, 2015 edition
By MARK SARDELLA
WAKEFIELD — The Board of Selectmen, while cautioning against any future untoward displays of emotion, strongly backed the Zoning Board of Appeals in a flap over an episode that occurred at the June 10 ZBA meeting. ZBA Chairman David Hatfield appeared before the selectmen Monday night to respond to public criticism of the zoning board.
At that June 10 ZBA meeting, Ann Fandel spoke for the first time on the 130-unit Brightview Senior Living facility proposed on Crescent Street. She resides at the Crystal View Condominiums at the corner of Crescent and Main streets.
Fandel read aloud a letter she had written registering the condo owners’ “strong objection to the size of the Brightview project,” citing parking, traffic concerns and other issues that the ZBA had previously discussed at length over its nine months of hearings on the project.
An exchange broke out between Fandel and ZBA member Kim Hackett as Fandel was reading her letter. Hackett questioned where Fandel had been during the previous months of public hearings on Brightview. Fandel claimed that she “just found out about this project,” further alleging that “It’s been kept rather secretive.”
In a June 15 letter to the Item Forum, a group calling itself “The Wakefield Civic League” decried what were described as “disrespectful and unprofessional” reactions by Hackett and other ZBA members toward Fandel, alleging that board members “shook their heads” and “one rolled his eyes.”
Following up on the Item Forum letter, Susan Randolph-Frey addressed the selectmen at their June 22 meeting. Identifying herself as the secretary of the Wakefield Civic League, Frey complained at length about alleged conduct of Board of Appeals members toward the public.
The statement read by Randolph-Frey that night alleged that the “rude behavior” exhibited by ZBA members on June 10 included “snickering, making faces, using cell phones, eating, rolling of eyes, tossing of snacks across the aisle, derogatory remarks and personal attacks.”
She asserted that there was “a demonstrated attitude of impatience at best and disdain for the public at worst.”
Randolph-Frey said that she was requesting, on behalf of the Wakefield Civic League, that the selectmen “look into these episodes of inappropriate and disrespectful board behavior toward people during meetings.”
At this past Monday’s selectmen’s meeting, Hatfield responded to each of Randolph-Frey’s charges. He acknowledged that “gestures have occurred on a few occasions when (ZBA) members became frustrated with comments/questions made by the public.”
But the ZBA chairman defended his board. He alluded to Fandel’s allegation that the project had been kept secret, which he admitted “led to some strong reactions by board members.” Hatfield assured the selectmen that the entire process has been conducted in accordance with the Open Meeting Law and cited “countless Daily Item articles,” letters to the Item Forum and extensive discussions on social media.
“For anyone to allege that anything is being done secretively around this proposed project is completely baseless and without merit,” Hatfield said.
Selectman Brian Falvey, himself a former ZBA member, also defended the zoning board. He pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, there is no public “right” to speak at ZBA hearings. By state law, he said, public testimony is allowed only at the discretion of the board. He commended the Wakefield ZBA for its openness to public participation. But he also said that the board is under no obligation to allow speakers to continue to raise issues that have been laid to rest months ago.
Falvey noted that the Zoning Board of Appeals is a quasi-judicial board that is “almost like a court. You swear people in before they speak and they give sworn testimony.” He said that one of the ZBA’s jobs is to assess the credibility of those giving testimony.
Falvey defended ZBA members’ skepticism at Fandel’s June 10 claims that she had “just found out” about the Brightview project and that it had been “kept rather secretive.” Falvey produced the abutters list, which showed that Fandel had received the required legal notification of the proposed project on Sept. 9, 2014. He also held up a copy of a March 7, 2015 complaint related to the project filed in land court and signed by Fandel as a plaintiff.
Falvey conceded that ZBA members shouldn’t have let their feelings show but described their reactions as “human” and “reasonable” under the circumstances. He said he couldn’t blame ZBA members if they laughed at Fandel’s allegations of a “secretive” ZBA process on a Brightview project that she claimed she “just found out about.” He asserted that such claims were in fact “laughable.”
Falvey commended the ZBA for “a job well-done.”
“You have my full support, always,” he said.
Selectman Patrick Glynn, also a former ZBA member, said that he agreed with most of Hatfield’s defense of the Zoning Board but cautioned ZBA members to avoid emotional reactions, “giving people a vehicle to criticize.” He commended ZBA members for their patience and hard work.
Selectman Betsy Sheeran said that she hoped that people would move on.
“I would hope we could move forward as a community,” Sheeran told Hatfield. “The complaint was made and you’ve responded. I would like to think it doesn’t become a he said-she said, back and forth again. That’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy.”