Friday, July 13, 2012

Trying To Get ON the Island!

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Friday, July 13, 2012.

By Bill Gouveia

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…” – the theme song from Gilligan’s Island.

While the growing legend of Pheeny’s Island in the Norton Reservoir does not involve a shipwreck, Ginger, the Professor, or a millionaire and his wife – it may end up have a longer run than the vintage 1960’s comedy. The major difference thus far is unlike the uncharted desert isle where those reluctant residents were trapped, Pheeny’s Island seems well known. But some seem intent on keeping specific folks – and maybe everyone – off the small and uninhabited patch of land.

For those unfamiliar, developer Kenneth Leavitt has proposed an adventure camp for the six square mile island. To be known as Norton Adventure and Teambuilding Camp, the business would feature rope and zip lines where attendees would be guided by trained instructors through the various activities. They would access the island by boat or canoe-type watercraft from a parking lot off Route 140 over or near the Mansfield line. The business would allegedly employ about 30 people.

In order for the concept to ever come to fruition, it will require approval from a string of town boards and committees. The toughest of those may be the planning board and possibly the zoning board of appeals, since the zoning would apparently need to be changed to allow for a use such. But before that could begin, the proposal had to gain the approval of the local conservation commission.

That approval was received in late June with a list of no less than 62 conditions attached. That all came after several public sessions including the first, where over 100 residents turned out to be heard, most of them in opposition. The conservation committee appeared to give the matter considerable thought and study, and made clear it was not taking a position on the advisability of the project but rather just the conditions that would have to be met if it were opened .

That does not appear to be enough for at least three neighbors living near the island. They have filed an appeal with the state Department of Environmental Protection claiming their fellow citizens on the conservation committee did not properly weigh the impact the project would have on the environment. That seems a bit strange, since that would appear to be the local committee’s one and only job.

However, the residents are well within their rights to appeal on any basis they wish. From their letter it would appear their major objections are possible pollution of the reservoir by boat motors, possible wetland and flooding issues, and that the project might disturb a bald eagle allegedly seen in the area. Thus far there has been no official comment from the eagle.

All kidding aside, this project highlights the reasons why any new and different type of business faces serious problems these days in this part of the state. The Sun Chronicle area was formerly a rather under-developed section of Massachusetts commercially, with the ratio of residential areas far outweighing the commercial/industrial ones. We became a great place to live, and many of those residents worked at places located outside of their home area.

As that has changed, we have become even more protective of our homes. We react immediately and radically to any threat – real or perceived - to our rural or suburban homestead. This is understandable, but too often the strategy is to bog the prospective business down in legalese so it never even gets to the actual final permitting stage. And the objections are often more personal than for the good of the community.

That doesn’t necessarily mean this particular proposal is a winner for Norton, though many believe it is well-suited to the community. It does mean that the project – which has been the target of vandals already – deserves the chance to have it plans scrutinized by the proper local authorities just as much as those who live around it deserve the chance to have their legitimate concerns addressed.

The Town of Norton purchased the Norton Reservoir in part with the idea of restoring it to the recreational use it provided in years past. That goal may prove to be a lot more difficult than just cleaning up the water.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime Norton resident. He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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