Don’t Dare to Ask Questions in Dracut!

By: Brian Genest -Feb. 2019

In Dracut, you don’t question “the powers that be.” If you do, prepare to be attacked. Just ask Conservation Commissioner Fred Spicer.

Fred Spicer broke the golden rule of Dracut politics: He dared to ask questions about a proposed town project, a path on a narrow strip of conservation land with protected wetlands that would connect the school complex on Lakeview Avenue to Beaver Brook Farm. To make matters worse, he pointed out no one appears to be properly managing the project. Then, he voted against it. You’d think he committed a capital crime based on the subsequent media coverage and social-media nonsense.

Nothing distracts the easily distracted like a distraction, so the focus was put on Fred Spicer’s style, instead of the substance of his concerns, naturally. Politics, not the plan, were the topic of the post-meeting discussions. After all, not only did Fred Spicer speak up, he—gasp—called the way the project is being handled “loosey-goosey.”

If there’s one thing “the powers that be” don’t like to hear, it’s the truth!

The truth is that calling this plan loosey-goosey gives it way too much credit. There doesn’t appear to be anyone managing the project as a whole. It’s like one board and town employee doesn’t know what the others involved are doing because this project is being handled in such a siloed way.

The truth is that the town appears to be making up the plan is it goes along. The project has substantially changed, after going in front of a bunch of town boards, including the Community Preservation Committee, the Beaver Brook Farm Committee and the Conservation Commission.
Originally, the plan called for a path that would be 5 to 6 feet wide with mulched wood chips as the surface. Now, the plan has been increased to a 12-foot wide path and they are going to excavate 8 inches of soil and put down gravel instead.

The truth is that Town Engineer Mark Hamel couldn’t answer basic questions about the revised plan, including how far the expanded path would be from Beaver Brook or where the center line of the new path was on the plan.

The truth is that, as a former news reporter for the Dracut Dispatch who covered the conservation commission in town more than 20 years ago, I can’t imagine a scenario where Jim Jendro, who was on the board way back then, would have passed a project like this if a private citizen or their engineer was so ill prepared and unable to answer questions about distances and details.

When I pulled clips of my coverage of the conservation commission, the first story I found was dated May 27, 1993. An excerpt from that article with my byline said: “The final public hearing was scheduled to discuss a Notice of Intent. James McManus appeared before the Commission to present plans for construction of single-family homes on lots 21 through 27 on Brook Street. During the discussion, Jendro told McManus, ‘You don’t have what we consider to be complete plans. I don’t think this plan shows us what we need to know.’ Jendro said he had questions concerning the location of the wetlands near the site. [Conservation Commissioner James] Carr was also concerned, saying, ‘I’d like you to come in with some type of plan to protect the wetland.’ The Commission unanimously voted to continue the public hearing…”

The truth is that my wife was told only trees that were 3 inches in diameter or less would be removed and that the path wouldn’t be any closer than 10 feet to the property lines of abutters in the residential neighborhood. Some of the existing markers already appear closer and you don’t need a surveyor or a math degree to figure out that a double-wide path puts both those promises in the town manure pile.

The truth is that, with the new plan, more trees will be removed, more motorized equipment will be brought in to do the work, more overall area will be disturbed and more long-term impact from human use will result in less protection and preservation of conservation land and wetlands.
Last, but certainly not least, please forgive me for committing the triple sin of asking three questions. Why was Conservation Commissioner Steve Graham (who was also on the board way back then in 1993) allowed to vote on this project when his brother, who works for the school department, the applicant, appeared before the board to speak in favor of the matter that evening? Isn’t just the appearance of a conflict of interest like that enough reason for him not to cast a vote? Didn’t someone advise him to recuse himself before the meeting?

Here’s the bottom line: When “the powers that be” in Dracut want it, they are going to get it. If you get in the way, you get it instead. Got it?

Brian Genest is chairman of the Dracut Republican Town Committee. A marketing and communications expert with 20 years of success driving growth, maximizing ROI and boosting profits for consumer and high-tech brands, he has developed and executed strategic initiatives for a range of disruptive technologies, including robots, mobile commerce solutions and SaaS products. Earlier in his career, Genest worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for the Dracut Dispatch, Derry News and Billerica Minuteman. ◊