Zip line opponents still hope to block project

Opponents of a recreational zip line proposed for the largest island in the Norton Reservoir have vowed to keep fighting despite a defeat at Town Meeting. 

A Connecticut developer plans to build an outdoor recreation area on the forested island, and residents who oppose the idea had asked the town to take the land by eminent domain. That petition failed at Town Meeting last week.

The zip line still faces several hurdles, including the island’s residential zoning and the need for permits from various town boards, including Board of Health approval for sewage disposal.

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“We’ll continue the battle,” said Herb Ellison, who lives on Lakeview Road, near the island.

The petition article needed a two-thirds majority to pass at the Nov. 1 meeting; it received 106 votes in favor, 108 against. Eminent domain, rather than a simple purchase, would have been necessary because the owners of the island, known as Pheeny’s Island, already have a purchase-and-sale agreement with developer Ken Leavitt of Connecticut, Ellison said.

A. Brandt Henderson, another nearby resident, said that although the island is privately held, owners August and Manuel Ribeiro have long allowed people to land with small boats and walk the island’s approximately 7 acres.

He was disappointed in the turnout for Thursday’s meeting, which had been postponed for three days due to Hurricane Sandy. “I think if half the people who told me they would be there had showed up, we would have had a different result,” he said Monday. According to Henderson, 240 people, representing all of the town’s voting precincts, signed the petition.

Opponents said Leavitt might seek to operate as a nonprofit in an effort to ease his way through zoning conflicts. Leavitt could not be reached for comment.

The Norton Finance Committee recommended against taking the island. Chairman Lee Tarantino, speaking at Town Meeting, said the committee did not consider the petition an appropriate use of eminent domain. The committee thought it was not right, he said, to take the island just because some residents wanted a different use for it.

The petition called on the town to compensate the owners $149,900, which petitioners identified as the asking price. But skeptics said making such an offer would not guarantee the Ribeiros would be happy. Tom DeLuca, another Finance Committee member, warned that if the owners did not want to sell to the town, they could consider the action a “hostile” use of eminent domain.

The town’s attorney, Lauren Goldberg of Kopelman and Paige, told voters that using eminent domain in a manner the owners might consider unfriendly is a risky proposition. It requires two appraisals at a cost of $2,000 to $6,000 each, plus thousands of dollars in title research, and the owners have three years to contest the process or the purchase price, she said. Additionally, in the case of Pheeny’s Island, the private would-be buyer could sue the town, and defense costs would be hard to predict, she said.

The town of Norton purchased the 529-acre reservoir in 1986 to save it from being drained for development. All but two of its islands, the largest and smallest, were included in the deal, according to Henderson. The reservoir was once a “cesspool” of sewage contamination, he said, but the installation of a sewage treatment plant in Mansfield solved that problem. Since then, the reservoir has rebounded, and is home to otters, muskrats, cormorants, and birds of prey.

Residents who spoke in support of taking the island said ospreys and bald eagles have been seen landing on the island and hunting nearby. Grace Relihan, a Reservoir Street resident, said development on the island would put an end to the presence of large predatory birds. “They will go elsewhere, or they will die,” she said.

One resident said he looked forward to enjoying the zip line. Another questioned how the town would address the cost of fire and police protection on the island, but officials did not offer any immediate answers.

Bill Gouveia, the town moderator, repeatedly asked speakers to avoid commenting on the potential business on the island and what effect it might have, saying the scope of the article was limited to the town’s acquisition of the property.

In an interview afterward, Henderson objected to that stance. He said the fate of the property was relevant, and that he was “taken aback” by what he perceived as strong opposition from town officials.

After the initial vote, taken by a show of hands, residents sought a paper ballot, which the moderator said would go forward if at least 15 voters stood up; they did. To cast paper ballots, voters had to file into the lobby, receive and mark a ballot, and return to the middle school auditorium, where they stood in line to insert their ballots into a single electronic counting machine.

When the meeting was called to order once again, the town clerk read the results, and the article had failed.

In other Town Meeting action, voters approved a tax-increment financing agreement for trash hauler Waste Management, which is building a trucking facility in Norton. Michael Yunits, the town manager, has said the 11-year agreement will save the company $502,917 but bring the town more than $1 million in new tax revenue.

Town Meeting also approved $575,000 in borrowing, to be added to a previously approved $925,000, for roof replacement at J.C. Solmonese Elementary School. Officials anticipate the state will reimburse the town for 55.63 percent of the cost.

Voters unanimously approved the purchase of 21 acres on Bay Road, known as the Erikson property, for conservation. The town applied for a state grant and plans to buy the land only if it receives both the grant and an environmental mitigation payment from a developer. Together, they would cover the full purchase price of $225,000.