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Picnic table stirs up a stew; Dispute takes a seat on Common.

Byline: Craig S. Semon

STURBRIDGE - A picnic table placed on the Town Common has stirred the ire of the Historical Commission chairman, and a former town administrator is also critical of the table.

"The Common has been around since 1738 and there has never been a need for picnic tables so far," Historical Commission Chairman Brian D. Burns said.

"I, with my own very eyes, witnessed people picnicking on blankets, on the benches, even on the bandstand itself."

Mr. Burns is miffed that his commission was not consulted first before the picnic table's "ill-considered placement" on the Common, which happened without warning within the last two weeks.

"Speaking as an individual and not at this time for the Historical Commission, I believe that permanent alterations to the most public of our public places deserve public discussion," Mr. Burns said.

"Of course, the Common changes over time. We don't drill troops there now. No one alive today recalls the shoe factory or the seasonal cattle pens. However, since the Common is the publicly owned center of our National Historic District, I plan to place this issue on our August agenda, unless it is resolved before then by proper authority."

When Mr. Burns first became aware of the $800, green enameled, meshed steel and tubular-framed picnic table, he contacted Mary Blanchard, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen. She knew nothing about it.

"Personally, I'm not in favor of putting picnic tables all over the place," Mrs. Blanchard said. "We certainly have a few benches that people can use ... It's not a picnic area."

Recreation Coordinator Lynne Girouard said the Recreation Committee is responsible for the picnic table,

which was bought with money from an anonymous donor to replace a wooden picnic table that disappeared two years ago. Ms. Girouard said she never sought the approval of then Town Administrator James J. Malloy because she didn't believe she had to.

"I think that putting cheap picnic tables on the Town Common is totally inconsistent with the historic atmosphere on the Town Common," Mr. Malloy said.

According to the town charter, the town administrator approves the use and control of all town-owned property. However, if the picnic table was a replacement, Mr. Malloy said, he doesn't think the Recreation Committee would have to seek the town administrator's approval. Interim Town Administrator Michael J. Racicot said he's looking further into the matter.

A few months back, on his "Thinking Out Loud in Sturbridge" blog, resident Wally J. Hersee started a "Tables on the Common" campaign to solicit funds for several picnic tables to be placed in the center of town.

He was hoping to raise up to $1,600 to get at least two low-maintenance, "Yogi Bear-type picnic tables." To date, he has collected $155.

"You don't want to get anything that is going to be metal or tubular or something that is going to detract from the Common," Mr. Hersee said, who obviously hadn't seen the picnic table on the Common.

"You want something that is going to be able to fit into the Common. So a traditional-design picnic table would be an ideal thing."

Mr. Herseesaid some

picnic table critics think of the Common as a historic battlefield or sacred ground that can't be touched. He thinks otherwise.

"I lived on the Common for about four years and to be able to go out there in the early morning and have a cup of coffee or read the paper or just have lunch on the Common tucked under the trees, it just brought everything that much closer to you," Mr. Hersee said. "The ambience was so nice, so I thought it would be a great idea to bring the picnic tables back. And, if the town can't afford it, raise some money to do it and, if we can get some money to do even one, wouldn't that be a great idea."

Selectman Thomas R. Creamer, who contributed to Mr. Hersee's picnic fund, said he's amazed "a rogue picnic table" is creating such a stir in the community; however, when he did first see it, he confessed, he was struck by the "rather sterile and contemporary" design.

In addition to the controversial picnic table, the Recreation Committee has replaced an inconspicuous park bench that is chained to the gazebo, which, as of yet, hasn't caused a single grumble.

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: The metallic picnic table is chained to a tree on the Town Common.

PHOTOG: T&G Staff Photo/ PAUL KAPTEYN
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 23, 2009
Words:748
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