Town Halts Collings Museum … August 5 2015

By Nancy Arsenault
“This will really put Stow on the map,” said Town Administrator Bill Wrigley, without enthusiasm. He was referring to the recent decision by the Planning Board regarding the Collings Foundation and the expected court action that will follow.

On Wednesday, July 29, the Planning Board deemed the Collings Foundation activities on the Barton Road property to be not primarily educational. That specific wording reflects the Board’s response to one of three major qualifying criteria of the Massachusetts Dover Amendment. Had that criterion been met, the Dover Amendment could overrule town zoning bylaws, according to Town Counsel Barbara Huggins, paving the way for the construction of a new 60,000 square foot museum.

The Collings Foundation has stated in prior public forums that they believe that approval for the museum is warranted, justified and allowable within the constraints of the zoning bylaws, because of the educational aspect of the project.  They emphatically warned that if denied permission to move forward on what they believe is legally their right, they will bring the issue before the courts.

The Board had already determined that the Collings Foundation met the Dover Amendment’s other two criteria: that it was established as a non-profit corporation and that education is specifically noted in the Articles of Organization as one of the main intents of the group.

To address the third criterion related to its uses being primarily educational, the Board had been reviewing related court cases where educational questions had been decided, perusing Collings Foundation corporate documents, accepting public comment, and then publicly debating the issue.

This was all part of an overall Site Plan review conducted within the Special Permit process for the proposed project.  Before the Site Plan specifics could be reviewed, the question of whether the museum could even be allowed, had to be addressed.

Opinions Split
When the count was taken, the Board was split 3-2 in favor of rejecting the educational description of activities presented by the Foundation, including the curriculum and display component plans for the proposed museum.

Steve Quinn and Lenny Golder argued that the opportunities for education are numerous, some as simple as witnessing events or walking through exhibits. They conceded that while much of the effort to garner knowledge may fall on the visitor, by virtue of its very existence as a museum, the information presented throughout the property is educational. “I see the museum building as the classroom, and the events on the field as the lab,” explained Quinn.  “This is a living history museum. The live events are teaching.”

For those voting against the educational factor, Ernie Dodd, Margaret Costello and Lori Clark, the three large weekend events hosted on the airfield were deemed to be primarily entertainment and not educational. Perceived by these members to be the most visible and largest public functions on the site, the entertainment slant of the events and lack of documented and measureable educational focus was the largest weakness of the proposal. “The museum has the potential to be educational,” offered Chairman Lori Clark, “but the majority of participation on the site is for the events, so I have a hard time saying the activities there are primarily educational.”

The group did question Town Counsel to determine if separate opinions could be given for the live events vs. the Museum. Town Counsel Huggins advised the Board to vote for the total slate of offerings, as that is how The Collings Foundation, presented their work in the Site Plan Approval application.

Ernie Dodd commented, “What was presented to us was the whole picture. It would be difficult to pick and choose pieces when the proposal includes everything.”  Lori Clark concluded that, considering the information supplied, there is very limited support to show the Collings Foundation is primarily educational.

Steve Quinn continued his efforts to sway the Board saying that even if the extent of education may not be as much as the Board would like to see, by approving the museum and related activities under the Dover Amendment, the Board and the Town would finally have the opportunity to regulate what goes on at the property. He reminded the Board that without the approval for the museum, the new access road in and out of Hudson would not be built. All Collings traffic would now be right back on Barton Road, one of the main complaints of abutters.  If approvals were granted by the Board, conditions could also be applied that could restrict flying times, noise levels, and other adverse factors that have been loudly voiced by the neighborhood.

The Board’s finding regarding the Dover Amendment will be written into the final Site Plan decision. Ernie Dodd said he hopes the Board will consider writing it with conditions that would be acceptable to the Board if and when a judge overturns their decision. He said if it is written to include that the project must have the inclusion of the Hudson access road, and possible conditions upon the flying activities, perhaps the Town could still gain some favorable direction through court action.

Response to Decision
Comments from the Collings Foundation following the meeting were limited. Spokesperson Hunter Chaney said, “There is no way the Town of Stow will be able to justify what is or is not educational. Opinions are opinions. Facts dictate the final judgement. Considering the long history of the Foundation, our programs, museum, and 501c3 educational non-profit status, the Town does not have a chance. This will be a terrible waste of tax payer money,” he said about court litigation. Referring to the difficulties the project is facing within Town government and the perceived unreasonableness of town officials, Chaney said the Collings Foundation will be engaging the national media to bring attention to the matter.

Confirming that it could be a long legal battle ahead, Planning Board Assistant Planner Jesse Steadman agreed that one way to possibly avoid the courts could be through the presentation of a Citizens Petition at Town Meeting, asking to amend the existing zoning bylaw. A citizen could offer an amendment change in a way that would permit the museum and related Collings’ activities, perhaps with some conditions, ultimately avoiding a court decision, if that path is agreeable to Collings.  The voters at Town Meeting would then be the ones deciding how the issue is resolved.

Selectman Chairman Don Hawkes said that without a Citizens Petition or any other action to suggest a different path, the Selectmen will be the ones deciding how the Town will address any lawsuit posed by the Collings Foundation. While not endorsing the action, Hawkes did say that posing the issue before the voters in a Town Meeting setting, could be something to consider. “We have heard quite clearly the opinion of those in the neighborhood. I don’t think we have really heard what the rest of the residents in Town think about this,” he said.

The final written Planning Board decision is expected within the next month.