Chester greenhouse project in flux following multiple board resignations Current, former members hope efforts continue to completion

By Cynthia Prairie and Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

An effort to erect an historic greenhouse in Chester and operate it as a community service is in the midst of an upheaval after three members of the six-member board quit in late August, citing a disagreement over what  some say is the “scope and scale” of the project and its mission.

From left, Cheryl Joy Lipton, Kate Matracia, Tim Roper, Luna Burkland, Melody Reed and Robert Nied pictured earlier in 2021. Photo provided by CCGG.

The schism in the board of the Chester Community Greenhouse and Gardens became public when a Sept. 8 letter from the attorney representing the remaining members  was sent to the Chester Select Board for that board’s Sept. 15 meeting.

The letter from attorney George McNaughton was in response to an Aug. 30 letter from then-greenhouse board members Kate Matracia, Tim Roper and Robert Nied to Select Board chair Arne Jonynas that said that they were resigning because of the “pursuit of a personal agenda” by CCGG board President Cheryl Joy Lipton. Remaining as members are  Lipton, Melody Reed and student member Luna Burkland.

Nied, the former treasurer of the organization, said in an interview Monday, “Our concerns were what was being forwarded by a minority of the board in scope and scale was at odds with the project’s mission.”

Contacted early Tuesday, Lipton, who says that she does not have a personal agenda, does agree with Nied that the disagreement revolves around the project’s mission, but says that the problem lies with how Nied, Roper and Matracia are interpreting it. “I believe that they are looking at four things differently,” she said, listing them as “environmentally compatible economic development, climate change, holistic health and sustainability.” 

To illustrate, one group might believe that a riparian buffer would need to be planted or allowed to grow from the top of the stream bank for 50 feet or more toward the Academy Building, to offset the carbon footprint of building the greenhouse and align with portions of the mission. Others might agree with the need to offset but disagree on how that is reached.

Roper, contacted Tuesday night, said that the disagreement is in how to stay in alignment with the environmental aspect of the mission statement. Asked to take up the buffer example, Roper said there are “multiple ways to offset the effect of putting up and operating the greenhouse” including using electric mowers and growing food that would interrupt a portion of the long distance food supply from places like Chile and California. “Without doing the research, I’d go out on a limb to say that those two thing would more than offset the footprint of the greenhouse.”

But at the same time anything outside the scope of the project as presented to the town’s Select Board or memorialized in a lease, contract or memorandum of understanding would need the approval of that board.

In their Aug. 30 letter, the trio also said that the project had “ground to a halt at a critical time in our discussions with the Select Board, community members, potential grantors and federal and state agencies.” They also stated their “collective belief” that the remaining board members “may not have the necessary leadership and experience to successfully complete a project of this scale.”

Click image to enlarge

In the interview, Nied would only say, “I don’t believe the changes were in the best interest of the project or the town.” He later elaborated, “This is a community project … that would significantly benefit the community. It isn’t for us (board members) to determine the scale and scope of the project, it’s up to the community. And if it is on town property, the people of Chester need to have significant input. ”

In his letter on behalf of the remaining greenhouse board members, attorney McNaughton told the Select Board that they “…are diligently working on replenishing the membership of the corporate board of directors” and “…are eager to get the project moving again.” He also wrote that the stalemate was caused by the fact that there was an even number of members of the board — six — but that the new board would have an uneven number to avoid such deadlocks.

The Select Board is involved in the issue because the greenhouse board approached the town for use of public land — specifically acreage behind the Academy Building on Main Street or at the well site on Canal Street — to erect the building. Board members have been mostly enthusiastic about the project but several have asked for detailed plans on how the project would operate and what would happen if it failed. During one Select Board meeting, Lipton said that her group was not raising money for that. 

Lipton said she was “disappointed” that the three members left as well as with comments they made in their separate letters of resignation to the greenhouse board. “I don’t agree with their comments, but they were duly noted,” she said. She believes the problem started when the Select Board visited the two sites and the greenhouse board had placed stakes in the ground to indicate the building’s size. At the Academy Building site, “They wanted the greenhouse to go nowhere except where the four stakes were,” she said, adding that she did not want it “set in stone where the greenhouse would go.”

Melody Reed called the dispute a “fundamental disagreement regarding the mission statement … particularly the definition of “sustainability and “environmentally compatible economic development.”

Reed added that she did not believe that the resignations were “a setback,” adding, “We were moving too fast to begin with and now we need to catch our breath. …  We need to work on the bylaws.”

Lipton agreed with Reed, saying that now the organization will concentrate on finishing the bylaws, completing a 5-year plan, enlisting a treasurer and bringing the board up to seven members.

The greenhouse project, from idea to enthusiastic support

The community greenhouse idea was the brainchild of Nied, who brought it to the attention of Lipton and Reed, who were hosting a pandemic-era podcast called Victory Gardening in the 21st Century. Both loved the idea and the trio ran with it, establishing a 501(c)3 and drumming up support.

It then got a huge boost in the fall of 2020 when the group was given a 1930s Lord and Burnham greenhouse. The historic structure was originally built for a business in Walpole, which was dismantling it. The group got the 32-foot x 100-foot frame moved to Chester, where it is being stored in a barn.

The group has envisioned a three-season operation offering small allotments in the greenhouse for Chester residents to grow their own vegetables, flowers or just about whatever plants they want, although growing invasive species would not be allowed.  Outdoor gardens were also suggested as well as workshops on gardening.

The project has received a lot of community support, including a thumbs-up from the Select Board, which has written a letter of intent on loaning town land for the project, as well as several thousands of dollars in donations and even more in in-kind donations. The organization is also looking toward promising grant opportunities.

Until this latest hiccup, Reed called  the work on the project “one of the most positive” that she has been involved in, a sentiment echoed by Nied who said, “We worked extraordinarily well as a board.” Lipton continued to look forward, saying that greenhouse “is a place that is going to bring a lot of people together.

And Nied and Roper continue to express the hope that the project will succeed, even without them. “I care deeply about this project,” said Roper. “It was hard to resign.”

In the meantime, Nied has informed Jonynas that he and other former board members are willing to go before the Select Board to answer questions about the situation.

Two of the five Select Board members reached for comment, however expressed various levels of concern. Said vice chair Heather Chase,  “This is a wonderful project and I am profoundly disappointed. In my view losing half of its board makes this project vulnerable.”

Chair Jonynas said, “It is disappointing and unfortunate that a project with so much potential for the residents of Chester reached an impasse that compelled three directors to resign. I hope that all of the enthusiasm and support of the Select Board for this undertaking will not have been in vain and that the remaining board with new blood will continue forward and make this project a reality.”

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  1. Barre Pinske says:

    I know all the players I was a bit surprised to hear this news. We are living in a time where everyone’s reality is given value which is good because it respects individualism but bad in getting things done. Groups like this need strong leadership and buy-in from the members. A greenhouse in Chester is not going to save the world from climate change or tip the scales to melt the ice cap it’s spit in the ocean the focus should be on what benefit it brings to the community and where to put it. I had friends growing up who where working on a name for their band before they could play guitar I hope these folks get focused on what really matters so many of us would like to see this succeed.

  2. Greg says:

    This project is unavoidably more complicated because there is a nonprofit organization seeking funding to build and operate the greenhouse on town land.

  3. Ken Bergmann says:

    Folks. It’s a GREENHOUSE. It’s for growing plants. It’s simple.

    It’s turned into the board of directors, the attorney, personal agendas, the project’s mission, environmentally compatible economic development, climate change, holistic health and sustainability, riparian buffers, carbon footprints, the environmental aspect, work on the bylaws and what else?

    Again Folks, It’s a GREENHOUSE. It’s for growing plants. How can we make this any more difficult?

    I wish I owned enough land to say, “Here. Put it in my backyard. Where are my seeds?”