September 26, 2017

Controversy Brews over Howitzer at Veteran’s Memorial

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There is a controversy surrounding the addition of a piece of vintage artillery to the Veteran’s Memorial Park on Arcade Avenue. A howitzer was placed near the memorial on July 28 and some residents and town officials had questions and concerns about the location and the process undertaken to put it there.

A long discussion was held at the board of selectmen’s meeting on August 23 and it has been a popular topic on social media over the past few weeks. The howitzer was placed near the memorial under the direction of the Veterans Memorial Committee with approval from the board of selectmen. It is a 155mm howitzer dating back to the 1920’s, according to Selectman David Viera.  It is on ‘permanent’ loan from the National Guard.

Some residents objected to the howitzer being placed near the memorial because it seemed to just “appear” there one day without any prior notice to residents. Some also felt it doesn’t fit with the peaceful atmosphere of the memorial. “I feel very strongly that the beautiful memorial and the beautiful location should not have a howitzer placed there,” resident Lauren Walsh told selectmen.

Walsh also said that the howitzer was never put on the selectmen’s meeting agenda as an item for discussion and therefore residents were not aware of it. “I’m truly disappointed that this board never gave the community the opportunity to come forward and provide feedback,” Walsh continued.

Selectmen Chairman David Andrade acknowledged that it was never listed as an agenda line item, but it was discussed as part of the Veteran’s Memorial Park Liaison report. Andrade said when it was proposed, he didn’t think it needed a lengthy discussion because many other veterans’ memorials across the state and country have similar artifacts as part of their memorials.

Representatives of the Veterans Memorial Committee said the committee discussed the howitzer and their meetings are posted properly. “This item did not ‘just appear.’ There was no impropriety,” DoreenTaylor, a volunteer with the Veteran’s Committee, said. The addition of the howitzer to the Veterans Memorial Park has been under consideration for awhile, according to Selectman Viera. Viera told State Rep. Steven Howitt that it might be nice to have a military artifact as part of the memorial and Rep. Howitt helped facilitate the loan from the National Guard. 

Many veterans and others in attendance at the selectmen’s meeting spoke in favor of the howitzer. Bob DeFontes, Vice-Chairman of the Veterans Memorial Committee and a veteran himself, said he was “appalled” at all the disagreement. “It’s a symbol to represent veterans that paid the ultimate sacrifice that possibly used that weapon to protect the freedom that we have today,” said DeFontes. “To me, it’s an honor to have that howitzer sitting out there on the ground,” said one man. “I say the howitzer should stay there as a history of the military,” said one woman.

Selectman Viera agreed, saying the gun, like the memorial, is a learning tool for people. “The howitzer is a tool to remind people that if we forget the past, then history is destined to repeat itself,” Viera said.

One veteran, however, agreed with Walsh that the gun may not belong in its current location. “It’s location to me was overshadowing the memorial. The purpose of the memorial is a place of reflection,” he said. The howitzer may not remain in the exact location it is now. A concrete slab needs to be installed as a base for the howitzer. The Veterans Committee is still looking into a permanent location for the gun somewhere near the memorial.

Selectman Nelson Almeida offered the suggestion that if an alternate location was needed for the howitzer, it could be put in front of the town hall because there is a veteran’s memorial there. Although Almeida also said he was okay with it staying where it is. A big question during the discussion was who is responsible for the property.

DeFontes said the library does not control the land, but Michael Durkay, Chairman of the Board of Library Trustees, said the town gave his board control a few years ago. Durkay said that there is no question that the town owns the property, but at the May 2010 town meeting, residents voted to transfer care, custody and control of the library property from the Board of Selectmen to the Board of Library Trustees.  The Library Trustees and the library were not given advance notice about the howitzer, Durkay said. “The howitzer was effectively dropped on the site without notification to us as trustees and we are responsible for the site,” Durkay said. “We are particularly concerned about the way in which established town regulations and procedures have been ignored or bypassed,” Durkay said.

He also noted that the original design of the Memorial did not include a howitzer and the Trustees were supposed to be notified of any changes to the Memorial.  “Because of a lack of information flow, this feeling of divisiveness within the town comes out,” Durkay said. The Trustees are not opposing anything other than a “rush to judgement,” Durkay said. However, they have concerns regarding whether the special use permit issued for the Memorial covers the howitzer and who is liable if a child climbs on the gun, falls and gets injured. Durkay asked for a “timeout” to discuss the issue further.

Several selectmen acknowledged that they thought the property was controlled by the town and board of selectmen. “I was under the same impression that everybody on the board was that the care and custody of the memorial was with the town and not necessarily the library,” Town Administrator Shawn Cadime said.

Selectman Dave Parker questioned who has the final say on the howitzer’s location and it was agreed that it is likely the Board of Library Trustees. “I hope between the Board of Library Trustees and the Board of Selectmen, we can get on the same page and find a solution,” said Chairman Andrade.

The boards are expected to continue the discussion soon.

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