West

Military museum plan sparks battle in Stow

A hangar houses historic aircraft at the Collings Foundation in Stow.
Jackie Ricciardi for The Boston Globe/file 2013
A hangar houses historic aircraft and vehicles at the Collings Foundation in Stow.

STOW — The Collings Foundation is tucked away on a large piece of private property near Lake Boon. It’s not easy to find; I had to stop to ask people for directions twice before finally arriving at the 90-acre estate to see its impressive collection of vintage planes, automobiles, tanks, and military vehicles.

Bob Collings, the foundation’s founder, wants to change that and make this historic collection more accessible to the public.

His plan is to build a 67,000-square-foot museum on the property, and a new access road that connects to Main Street in Hudson. The new facility would be called the American Heritage Museum, where visitors could explore a life-size replica of a World War I trench and experience what life was like for soldiers on the battlefront, thanks to special effects that re-create sights, sounds, and smells of war (i.e. “trench stench”). The museum would house a theater, classrooms, interactive exhibits, and military artifacts including a 1917 American tank (weighing 6 tons), a Revolutionary War cannon, and a 41-foot-long Scud-B missile from Desert Storm.

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It’s a grand vision, but there’s a catch: the land is zoned residential. Some neighbors have voiced concerns about the foundation’s proposal, and local officials have not embraced its expansion plans.

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In March, Stow officials told the Collings Foundation it couldn’t operate its historic aircraft on the property anymore, and the Planning Board has yet to render a decision on the site plan.

“It’s a wonderful and impressive collection,” said Dan Barstow, who lives about a quarter-mile from the foundation’s headquarters. “The problem is, he’s trying to do this in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood.”

Right now, the only way to reach the site is via Barton Road, a narrow street that’s partly public and partly private. The property sits beside Lake Boon and a cozy neighborhood of waterfront cottages. Along the road, signs expressing opposition to the museum (a red circle with a diagonal line slashing through the silhouette of a military tank) have been posted on a few trees.

Once on the 90-acre property, however, visitors feel far away from the rest of the world. Collings’s home and the foundation’s headquarters are surrounded by vast expanses of green grass bordered by tall trees. There is an antique-looking barn that was built in 1979, the same year Collings established the nonprofit. Next to the barn is a 44,000-square-foot hangar that houses vintage aircraft, race cars, tanks, and motorcycles, as well as a 1940 Cadillac that was once owned by Al Capone.

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All told, the property is home to 12 aircraft and 115 vehicles. The huge World War II aircraft used in the foundation’s “Wings of Freedom Tour” are not kept in Stow; they travel all over the country for 10 months out of the year, and then spend two months in Florida for maintenance.

The Stow facility also hosts fund-raisers, special events, and group tours (by appointment only). The Collings Foundation holds three “living history” events in Stow every year that are open to the public. They take place over one weekend each in June, July, and October.

Hunter Chaney, director of marketing for the Collings Foundation, estimated that more than 90 percent of the flying in Stow is done over those six days.

In March, when the building inspector gave the foundation a cease-and-desist order on its flight operations, said Chaney, “It seemed kind of odd. It was a shock to us.”

“We’ve been conducting flight operations here for 37 years,” said Chaney. “We fly the planes here mostly during our three living history events.”

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Collings said the new museum would have limited hours of operation, and would likely be open weekends for six months out of the year. Visitors would use the new road from Hudson to get to the museum.

“We want to get the road built so we don’t bother neighbors” on Barton Road, said Chaney.

Collings said the foundation needs to build the new facility to house a collection of rare tanks and military vehicles recently donated to it. The American Heritage Museum would showcase approximately 80 of them.

“These artifacts are unparalleled,” said Collings.

Meanwhile, Stow’s Planning Board members have been studying cases involving the Dover Amendment, a state law (named after a court case involving the Town of Dover) that exempts nonprofit educational institutions and religious organizations from certain local zoning laws. Much debate has been waged over whether the Collings Foundation’s museum qualifies as an educational use.

What is considered to be educational? Over the years, a variety of projects have sought protection under the Dover Amendment. Examples include a proposed retirement community at Regis College in Weston, a zip-line park in Sandwich, a YMCA in Hopkinton, and a substance-abuse treatment center in Haverhill.

Most recently, the Museum of World War II in Natick presented plans to build a new facility there. James D. Hanrahan, an attorney representing the museum, wrote a letter to the town’s building commissioner explaining how the project qualified for protection under the Dover Amendment. Natick’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted to approve it on July 27.

Collings said his foundation has received more than 3,000 signatures supporting its educational mission, and its plans to construct the American Heritage Museum. Hudson approved the proposed roadway in January. Now the foundation awaits a decision on its proposed site plan from Stow’s Planning Board, which could hold a vote during its next scheduled meeting, on Aug. 26. A decision is due by Sept. 2.

Planning Board members declined to comment on the plans.

Peter Christmas lives on Barton Road within 150 feet of the foundation’s driveway. During past living history events, he said, he could hear planes taking off and landing, and cannons and machine guns firing.

“Imagine we’re sitting out on the dock, enjoying our Sunday afternoon, and there’s an incredibly loud airplane coming over the top of your house, over and over,” he said. “Noise-wise, it’s really annoying.”

Christmas said he fears that if the foundation is protected by the Dover Amendment, Collings is “going to be able to do whatever he wants.”

Barstow described Collings wanting to showcase the historic artifacts and educate the public as a “noble” and “laudable” goal, but said he disagrees with the location.

“It’s tragic that he’s trying to put this in his own backyard,” he said. “It is the wrong place to put it for its educational goal.”

Kent Seith, president of the Lake Boon Association, said he understands why the neighborhood is concerned. He said the foundation’s fall event coincides with apple-picking season, and he has heard of people getting stuck in their driveway because traffic is so bad.

He also appreciates the historic value of what the foundation has to offer, Seith said, and has brought his children to see the vintage vehicles and aircraft.

“It is educational,” he said, noting that he isn’t taking sides.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.