Deerfield town park project dies in court 

  • The plans for a North Main Street park in South Deerfield have been withdrawn. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The plans for a North Main Street park in South Deerfield have been withdrawn. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2023

DEERFIELD — The proposed North Main Street park project is effectively dead in the water after a joint motion to annul the town’s site plan review was filed in Franklin County Superior Court.

All three parties in the appeal — abutter and plaintiff Judith Rathbone, the Select Board, which was the project applicant, and the Planning Board — filed a motion to annul the 2022 site plan approval of the project and dismiss Rathbone’s complaint “with prejudice and without costs awarded to any party,” according to documents filed in court on May 5.

The proposed park, which was targeted for land that abuts Frontier Regional School, was to have had two athletic fields, a walking loop, a pavilion and a band shell, among other amenities.

The case was originally set to go to trial in September, but the town’s attorneys decided it would be better for the town in the long run if it resolved the appeal now, according to a statement by attorney James Martin, who represented the Select Board.

“The town of Deerfield has withdrawn its applications and moved to dismiss the cases pending related to the Main Street park and athletic field development,” Martin said. “Facing three lawsuits on the matter, none of which were clearly resolving in a cost-effective manner, the Select Board determined that it was most prudent to stop its efforts and look at the property anew.”

While no legal costs were awarded, the annulment of the park will likely cause the town to forfeit a $938,500 Land and Water Conservation grant it received in 2021 because its deadline to use the money was in June, according to Town Administrator Kayce Warren’s affidavit filed with the court.

“The time frame for the grant, based on the construction timeline is May 1, 2022 through June 1, 2023,” Warren’s affidavit reads. “The town may lose out on the grant if construction is not completed with that timeframe.”

Attorney John McLaughlin, who has represented Rathbone throughout the process, said Rathbone is thrilled the project will not proceed as planned and that the wetlands and ecosystem on the back side of her property will remain undisturbed.

“She really cares about those things and wanted to protect them,” McLaughlin said. “My client’s very glad they’re not going forward with this particular plan.”

Select Board Chairwoman Carolyn Shores Ness declined to comment further, citing town counsel advice, but said the town is “going to retain the property.” Deerfield purchased the property in 2020 and had been pursuing the park project since then.

Rathbone’s appeal centered on an argument alleging the project skirted the town’s Green Development Standard bylaws passed at the June 2021 Town Meeting and that there were more wetlands than previously delineated by the Deerfield Conservation Commission in 2020. The wetlands delineations were set to expire on Sept. 17, while the trial was set for Sept. 18.

The bylaws prohibit commercial, industrial or institutional developments from altering more than 40% of a site. McLaughlin wrote in court documents that the project would “physically alter 7.41 acres of the 8.48-acre site, which is 84% of the subject property.”

While the bylaw prohibits “commercial, industrial or institutional” projects from altering more than 40% of a site, there is no mention of municipal projects.

The crux of McLaughlin’s argument was that the word “institutional” applies to town government based on the fact that Deerfield’s bylaws use the latest version of Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary to define words that are undefined by the town’s bylaws.

Additionally, in the town’s stormwater eligibility permit, there was a checkmark in the “Yes” column asking if the project is “for commercial, industrial or institutional use.” In the site plan review application, however, the proposed use was marked as “municipal.”

Regarding the wetlands, Franklin County Superior Court Judge Karen Goodwin allowed Rathbone and her team of experts to enter the property and conduct non-damaging soil testing.

That testing never happened, however, as McLaughlin said it was set to begin this month, but the joint motion to annul the site plan review made it moot.

“This wasn’t a good location for what they had planned,” McLaughlin said this week, “and maybe they realized that.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.