Residents offer harsh critique of TreeTop zoning saga

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Frustrations over the town’s handling of the TreeTop Adventures zoning saga bubbled to the surface at a ZBA hearing last week as residents of Ward Well Road and other concerned citizens were given a chance to clear the air following a contentious, two-year dispute over the zip-line park’s permitting and location.

Resident Ed Tasi addresses the ZBA. (Click on image to view the hearing courtesy of CCTV.)

Ed Tasi addresses the ZBA. (Click on image to view the hearing courtesy of CCTV. Starts around 57:00 mark.)

Opened in June 2016 on a parcel of land owned by the Irish Cultural Centre, the 10-course outdoor adventure park has drawn rave reviews from patrons but has been a sore spot for many neighbors, who have complained of noise and lighting disturbances as well as impacts to their overall quality of life. The nearest abutter, Edward Tasi, filed suit against TreeTop’s owners and also pressed the town to launch an investigation, which ultimately found that the park was improperly sited on a residentially zoned lot, identified in zoning maps as 0 Ward Well Road.

Facing a cease-and-desist order from the building commissioner and unable to resolve their differences with the neighbors, TreeTop’s owners, Topher and Molly Kerr, recently announced that they were dropping their appeal and intended to file for new permits to reconstruct the park on the main ICC campus, further away from the neighborhood.

The zoning board, however, having already initiated appeal proceedings, elected to go forward with its December 14 continuation hearing as planned, offering the floor to anyone who wanted to speak on the topic.

Those who did take the opportunity to testify expressed a mixture of dismay, frustration, and anger, with some laying the blame on the project’s engineer, former Canton conservation agent Robert Murphy, and others faulting the town officials who approved the park and allowed it to operate for nearly two years.

Bruce Rohr, a former Conservation Commission member who worked alongside Murphy and who helped to uncover a pattern of ethics violations that Murphy was subsequently fined for, recounted some of the former agent’s missteps in a lengthy prepared statement. In particular, Rohr pointed to paid engineering work that Murphy performed for several Canton projects — under a consulting firm that he operated but did not disclose — that were “riddled with substantive incorrect engineering assumptions and arithmetic errors, all which favored the developer.”

“It was now certain,” said Rohr, “that Mr. Murphy, as Canton’s conservation agent, colluded with developers in Canton to deceive ConCom for a period of years or perhaps even decades.”

Rohr also criticized the ICC, citing their relationship with Murphy and a longstanding, “quiet deal” with the Board of Selectmen to utilize town-owned land but not pay for any maintenance or upkeep.

Ultimately, however, Rohr faulted the town for failing to properly vet or scrutinize a project that Murphy was involved in — several years after he was convicted by the state Ethics Commission.

“Canton’s elected and appointed officials, especially the ZBA but other town boards and departments, let the town down in permitting Treetop Adventures,” Rohr said. “There were plenty of red flags, the biggest being that Danena Engineering (Murphy’s firm) was involved. Any project involving Mr. Murphy is by almost definition dirty. What an embarrassment to the town that not a single town employee, appointed official or elected official, found the time to walk the property.”

Jane Parker, a resident of Ward Well Road, also expressed her skepticism with the approval process, calling it a “cover-up.” Parker said she called the Conservation Department when she first heard chainsaws in the town forest and was told not to worry about anything.

“It just seems all these boards have given us runaround answers,” she said. “Everybody covers for everybody else.”

Both Parker and fellow neighbor Richard Trotto also pointed out the substantial personal expense that Tasi had to incur to stop a project that Parker noted was “illegal from the get-go” due to its location in a residential district.

“Although [Tasi] did nothing wrong, he had to pay almost twice as much in legal fees to get this straightened out,” added Trotto. “There’s something terribly wrong there.”

Trotto said he is pleased that the proposed new location of the park is several hundred feet further away from his property line. “The further, the better,” he said. “I mean, I’m happy with them just getting out of [the current lot] because it was basically a nightmare. It was a rowdy party going on all day long, all summer long.”

Kathy McCormack, who does not live in the neighborhood but is a lifelong resident of Canton, said the fact that the park was approved and built should be alarming to all homeowners in the town.

“What was done here is so wrong it isn’t even a grey area,” she said. “I don’t understand where the town was and what responsibility the town had in helping the people who live on Ward Well Road to protect their homes.”

Despite the often biting criticisms, the members of the ZBA generally remained quiet during the proceedings with the exception of Acting Chairman Greg Pando, who occasionally interjected to provide background information or respond to a direct question. Toward the conclusion of the hearing, Pando acknowledged the neighbors’ frustrations while describing the TreeTop case as one of the most difficult that he has ever served on during his long tenure on the board.

“This has been a very painful and long process for all of us,” he said. “This board prides itself on protecting and representing the townspeople and the town, and I think our track record speaks for itself. Yes, this project went sideways very badly. But I think that the ultimate resolution is the correct resolution, to remove it completely from that area.”

Susan Murphy, attorney for TreeTop Adventures, also addressed the board late in the hearing, reiterating her position that the Kerrs were never intentionally deceitful to either the residents or town officials. She stressed that they knew nothing about Robert Murphy’s background when they hired him as an engineer and that they genuinely want to be good neighbors and remain in Canton.

She also apologized on behalf of the Kerrs for any pain that they may have caused and pledged that they will do everything to the letter of the law when they return to the board on January 18 for a new permit hearing.

“We’re going to dot every I and cross every T,” she said. “There are no variances that are going to be requested and we just want to start with a clean slate.”

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