A group of residents called the Friends of Pheeny’s Island want Town Meeting voters to help them save a 6-acre privately owned island from becoming the site of what one called a “nature-faker amusement park.”
The island, off the shore of the Norton Reservoir, could be destined to become a “zipline” ropes course, to be created by Connecticut based developer Kenneth Leavitt.
An article on the warrant for the Monday night Town Meeting proposes the town take the island by eminent domain, and pay the owners the current asking price of $149,900. Leavitt and the owners have yet to sign a purchase and sale for the island, but the developer has spent significant money already laying out and designing the course, and also has spent many hours in the permitting process since the plans were first aired a year ago.
Herb Ellison, representing the Friends of Pheeny’s, said the island was zoned R-60 years ago, a designation that supposedly forbids commercial ventures. He told selectmen Thursday night the destruction and alteration of about a hundred trees, along with the “shrieking people” will drive away island bird life and disrupt what has been a relatively isolated ecosystem.
Proponents of the article say the island property belongs with the rest of the islands in the Reservoir, bought by the town in 1986 for conservation and recreation. Ellison said the first day his group hit the streets with a petition supporting the conservation if the island they gathered over 200 signatures in a single afternoon. Most of the residents approached had no idea the town did not own Pheeny’s already.
Both the Finance Committee and Norton Board of Selectmen have refused to support the article, saying there is very little money for such a venture, and disagreeing with any proposal to use free cash to take the island. Selectmen also said two weeks ago they were wary of setting a precedent by endorsing a move to take privately owned land to thwart development.
Member Bob Kimball said Thursday if the article goes through, he will be the first one in line with his own petition to try to save property destined for Chapter 40 B housing projects from development, particularly the most recent 40-B filed with the town, slated for 23 acres of property adjacent to Red Mill Village.
Ellison told the board the residents in the Reservoir area have watched the wildlife slowly return to the lake after it recovered from years of pollution, and have been thrilled with the results – not only the swans and herons common to water bodies in New England, but more recently rare visitors including the American Bald Eagle.
He said neighbors did not think the island would ever be developed, because the real estate listing said the land was unbuildable. He noted eminent domain has been used for conservation purposes in the past, including to save the Cape Cod National Seashore.
“We should have acted sooner,” Ellison said. “I would have thought it impossible for a business to be built in the R-60 zone.” He added his wife, a florist, wanted to teach small classes in their garage in the R-60 Reservoir district, but was told by the planning department she could not have a commercial venture in that zone.
The island, once it belonged to the town, would have no impact on schools or public utilities, Ellison said.
Selectmen maintained their reservations about setting a precedent by taking the island, and several said they were worried about the prospect of a lawsuit from the developer. But all members noted they were appreciative of the efforts the Friends of Pheeny’s have so far displayed.
Town Manager Michael Yunits also expressed some hesitation. “When would it stop?” he asked. “Every time someone is opposed to a project next door to them, they could get a petition.”
Town Meeting, weather permitting, will take place Monday night at 7 p.m. at the Norton Middle School. In the event of a bad storm that knocks out power, it will be rescheduled to Thursday.
“If it’s just rainy and we have some wind, but we still have power, we will still have Town Meeting,” said Kimball.