The letter that Hingham officials received from the US Department of the Interior did not mince words – it said the town had mishandled parkland deeded to Hingham for passive use in 1972.
“We view this matter very seriously and it must be remedied,” the Dec. 3 letter read.
Despite the intense tone and number of alleged wrongdoings, Hingham officials said most of the problems were misunderstandings, and any outstanding issues are being rectified.
“The picture painted for them was a bit different from the reality,” said Hingham Town Administrator Ted Alexiades at a selectmen meeting on Jan. 23.
In a phone interview, Alexiades said most of the concerns involved a piece of parkland known as “dagger parcel,” which was purchased by developer Thomas Hastings for the Back River condominium development. The parcel abuts Bare Cove Park, which the US Department of interior deeded to the town in 1972.
In 2006, Hastings agreed to exchange the land for a piece of town land that would better work for his property, saying he would also rebuild nearby sports fields.
Before transferring the land to the town, Hastings encumbered the property with several easements to allow him to put drainage on the land for his development, Alexiades said.
The easements were troubling to federal investigators, who believed they should not have been allowed and implied they were made while the land was part of the park.
“I can only assume it was portrayed to the folks at the National Park Services differently than it transpired…,” Alexiades said. “At no time ever did the town give Mr. Hastings parkland. It was his land that he owned and he gave back to us in exchange for other land we received.”
Officials with the National Park Service said the problems were still being sorted out.
"They felt that I may have been incorrect in part of what I said, as far as the boundaries go," said Elyse LaForest with the National Park Service Federal Lands to Parks program. "I need to sit down with the block plan and go over that. We’re in discussions with that."
In the letter, LaForest also had questions about delineating the boundary between the condo and parkland, creating long overdue signage for the park entrances, and ensuring proper use of the 475 acres of wooded land, including that of several buildings on the property.
The uses have been varied since the military left the former munitions depot and World War II Navy base and deeded the land to the town in the '70s.
According to a 2009 Stewardship Report, dog walking, hiking, and biking are the most common uses. Buildings on the property were used as storage for Hingham's Department of Public Works, and also housed the town’s sewer department, the Hingham Municipal Lighting Plant, the Bare Cove Fire Museum, and the South Shore Model Railroad Club.
Alexiades said some of those will have to change. The use of some buildings for sewer and electricity plant facilities will have to be moved. A new utilization plan will also be drafted to clarify all present and future uses.
The notification process for special events, which include a cleanup and dog walk, will also be spelled out, and non-profits that operate on the park will have to have clearer guidelines.
“The non-profit organizations are supposed to be doing something for the community in exchange for the building. We will sit with those organizations and talk about that. It may be that they are providing services to the community, not funds to repair parts of the park,” Alexiades said.
Hastings will also be required to put in some steel rods to mark the boundary, but Alexiades said the town will be on the hook for the remainder.
Hingham has already paid for the marking of the boundary in some areas after problems surfaced with people using the park encroaching on condo resident property.
The entrances to the park at Beale Street and Fort Hill Street will additionally have signs put in.
“I don’t have an answer why the town didn’t put up these particular signs requested by the National Park Service,” Alexiades said. “I wasn’t here when they were requested…they are only two signs, they aren’t expensive, we’re having them made and will have them put in.”
A “lease agreement” with Hingham Youth Baseball for the Beale Street Field will also be changed to a license, a technical correction that will bring the organization into compliance with the deed restrictions, Alexiades said.
LaForest said the problems were common with park land that has been deeded by the federal government.
"People change and they forget the strings that came with property," LaForest said. "Some of the compliance issues, signs, reports those are things we can work out."
Alexiades too said the fixes are minor, and views the dispute as a means to kickstart a new relationship between the town and the federal government.
“It’s a lot of clean-up things from two organizations that haven’t necessarily been working on a particular issue. We haven’t had the need or chance to communicate,” Alexiades said. “But they were pleasant to meet with and we look forward to continuing to make Bare Cove Park the jewel of the South Shore.”