After decades of wrangling over use of Woodstock’s Comeau Property, the Comeau Stewardship Advisory Committee managed to reach an agreement this spring on a major issue — the expansion of the soccer field. In a town where contention abounds, it’s encouraging, said committee member and retired therapist Grace Murphy, that “people who weren’t talking to each other before are now talking to each other.” Having decided it’s time to celebrate, the committee is holding the first annual Comeau Day 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, September 29.
Attendees are invited to bring a picnic, play soccer or ultimate Frisbee, enjoy a guided nature walk, hear the property’s history, listen to live music. At the same time, in the Plein-Air Paint-Out, observers may also look over the shoulders of local artists as they produce 5 x 7 paintings of the landscape to sell in support of Comeau projects.
“How many municipalities have 76 acres of countryside right in the middle of town?” mused psychotherapist and mediator Terry Funk-Antman, who serves, with Murphy, as co-chair of the committee. The committee’s seven members represent the various constituencies that use the land, including hikers, dog owners, soccer parents and coaches, environmentalists, and farmer Kathy Longyear, who mows the Comeau field.
The process that divided and then reunited all these groups began almost as soon as the townspeople voted to purchase the property in the late 1970s, with many who voted in favor wanting to keep the property pristine, and others, who also voted in favor of the purchase, doing so in the hopes that the property would be utilized for consolidation of town services and for other development, including a new highway garage. In 2000, the town government, which occupies buildings on the property, seeking clarity on what the people wanted, proposed a referendum on whether to construct a highway garage on part of the acreage. When voters turned down the project, it became clear that guidelines on use of the property were needed. A committee created by the town board recommended a conservation easement.
“An easement creates a picture of what you’re allowed to do on your land,” explained Funk-Antman. “In this case, the Comeau committee suggested this easement would create three areas: municipal, forever wild, and an area for the historical society. Only an acre was put aside for town offices, and they can’t go outside of that. Within each area, there are certain rules — the way you plant, what kinds of plants, no structures in the forest area.”
While a challenge to the legality of an easement on town land dragged out for several years, a Comeau Users Group was formed to come up with guidelines for using the property. But due to the conflicting needs of different constituencies, the group members had difficulty working together. They called in Funk-Antman and therapist Nancy Abrams, who had been running “Our Town” meetings in Woodstock, using a structured format to address controversial issues in a way that would enable people to express themselves and hear each other.
“Terry and I worked with the users group in 2007 and 2008,” recalled Abrams. “We had many meetings and did a lot of work in being able to hear each other’s needs. They came up with a report in 2008 — what they needed in terms of signage, how the soccer field could be protected, how dog walkers could walk their dogs.”