Four of the seven members of Abington’s Conservation Commission and one associate member have resigned together, surprising nearly everyone in town.
In his resignation letter, commission chairman Alex Bezanson accused the chairman of Abington’s Board of Selectmen, Andrew Burbine, and vice chairman Michael Franey of encouraging a local couple, Rodney and Ellen Powers, to disrupt the commission with complaints over a wetlands issue. In an interview, Bezanson also said that the two top selectmen wanted him off the panel altogether.
“It’s been Franey and Burbine. They’ve been fueling the fire to get us off the board,” Bezanson said last week after resigning with four of his colleagues at the end of their Jan. 8 meeting.
In an interview, Burbine called Bezanson’s allegation “absolutely untrue” and said he was “very surprised by the resignations.” He denied being hostile toward Bezanson, adding: “I’ve met him maybe two times in my life. I have had almost no interactions with him.”
Bezanson and two of the others who resigned, James Connolly and Hal Norton, described the atmosphere in Abington politics as bitterly divisive. The other two who resigned, Martin Williams and Timothy Warner, declined to be interviewed.
“There are two groups. Either you’re in or you’re out,” said Bezanson.
Burbine responded: “I’m not part of any group. I just expect people to do what they’re supposed to do. And I’m sure they expect the same of me.”
Franey also denied any hostility toward Bezanson and the others who resigned. He said there is divisiveness in any small town, but added, “It may be a little worse than average in Abington.”
The commissioners’ walkout came after a nearly three-year-long dispute between two Abington families that landed before the conservation panel. According to town records, Rodney and Ellen Powers of Wyman Street complained to the commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection that a neighbor, Wayne Paige, had cut down two damaged trees on his property. The Powerses contended the trees were within 100 feet of wetlands and should not have been removed. Because they were damaged, the commission verbally approved the tree removal but later learned that the DEP required such approvals in writing.
The town agreed not to issue verbal approvals in the future, and there was no further action from either the town or state on the tree removal issue, according to Bezanson and town records.
But on May 5, 2012, nearly two years after they first raised the issue, the Powerses again complained to the Conservation Commission and the DEP about Paige doing landscaping work in his backyard. Compounding the situation, Bezanson said that Paige did the work using heavy equipment borrowed from him; Bezanson, who is a contractor, and Paige are friends.
The Powerses hired a lawyer, attended multiple Conservation Commission meetings, recorded them, issued numerous complaints and requests for recusal against the Conservation Commission, and accused the panel of violating the state Open Meeting Law.
Both Bezanson and Norton asserted that other neighbors of the Powerses had also cut down trees without drawing complaints. Bezanson said this implies the Powerses must have personal issues with Paige.
The Powerses declined to be interviewed for this story.
Meanwhile, Paige, who is an Abington police officer, has also complained to the Conservation Commission about the Powerses cutting tree limbs, prompting the Powerses to complain to the town that Paige was harassing them.
Paige, in a telephone interview, said he “does not recall having a single interaction with the Powerses before their initial complaint about my trees.”
Franey said he is discouraged that such personal issues have spilled into town politics and that there is plenty of blame to spread around. “This thing was mishandled from the very beginning, and it never should have gotten this far.”
Bezanson, who says he had already decided to leave the commission when his term expires in April 2013, said the conflict between the Powerses and Paige has “cost the town a lot, in both money in legal fees and ill will.”
Town Manager John D’Agostino said he was surprised by Bezanson’s accusation of hostility. “I’m taken aback by Alex’s statements,” said D’Agostino. “In a democracy, it’s really important that all of us work together for the good of the community. We protect and defend the actions of the Conservation Commission where they are defendable.”
Selectmen at their Jan. 14 meeting said they accepted the resignations “with regret and thanks.”
D’Agostino must now appoint replacements to the panel, subject to approval by the Board of Selectmen. He said anyone interested in serving should contact him.