Shutesbury’s ConsCom leader resigns, cites personal attacks, interference from town

Miriam DeFant, pictured at a meeting in 2016, has resigned as chairwoman of the Shutesbury Conservation Commission.

Miriam DeFant, pictured at a meeting in 2016, has resigned as chairwoman of the Shutesbury Conservation Commission. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-22-2024 10:43 AM

SHUTESBURY — The chairwoman of the town’s Conservation Commission has stepped down, a decision she said stems from alleged personal attacks and interference by elected and appointed officials at Town Hall.

Miriam DeFant’s decision came on the eve of a wetlands protection bylaw that was to be voted on by residents at a special Town Meeting on Tuesday night. DeFant has been a member of the commission since being appointed Sept. 29, 2020 and has chaired the panel for the past 2½ years before she resigned a week ago Thursday.

“The backdrop to my resignation includes blatant disregard for environmental regulations, unnecessary polarization, resistance to providing the commission with necessary resources (such as access to legal advice), and pressure campaigns to interfere with the commission’s work,” DeFant wrote in a 10-page letter titled “Don’t Drain the (Wetland) Swamp!”

Some of DeFant’s letter, which provided a timeline of her concerns with wetlands issues in town, centered on the Select Board hiring Boston attorney Gregor McGregor to review both the wetlands bylaw and the wetlands regulations associated with the bylaw, that were adopted in October, and the Select Board’s initial opposition to providing the commission its own legal counsel, eventually relenting and allowing the commissioners to hire attorney Elisabeth Goodman of Williamstown.

“Shortly after joining the town government, I was shocked to learn of Shutesbury’s municipal laxity regarding environmental regulations,” DeFant writes.

“The record shows that this dynamic predates my appointment by over a decade. Knowing that many of my neighbors share my passion for the environment and open spaces, I was surprised to learn that our municipal government was much more laissez-faire about the environment than the rest of us.”

DeFant also cited the gasoline and PFAS contamination at the fire station on Leverett Road and the gasoline found in the soil at the future library site, also on Leverett Road, as well as the flooding and erosion in the area of Lake Wyola caused by heavy rain over the summer.

“Now, more than ever, we need strong environmental protections and independent boards to administer these protections,” she wrote.

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At a Dec. 14 commission meeting, DeFant also references “troubling reports” made to town officials involving herself and commission decisions. At the time, DeFant said all her actions had been in her official role and that she had shown no bias or animus toward landowners. “I do object to any allegation that I have done anything improper with any property,” DeFant said.

DeFant, who supported the proposed wetland bylaw, said she wants the community to have open, robust discussion and that diversity of opinion should be welcome, saying it is easier to resolve issues when everyone feels they have had input.

While her letter makes allegations about individuals, DeFant said she wouldn’t speak about people in town. DeFant said she will continue her service to the community on the Historical Commission and Energy and Climate Action Committee.

Select Board response

At Thursday’s Select Board meeting, DeFant’s resignation was accepted.

“I want to thank Miriam for her service,” said Chairwoman Rita Farrell. “She put in a tremendous amount of time working on both the regulations and the bylaw.”

Board member Melissa Makepeace-O’Neil thanked DeFant for her work and site visits and giving out permits.

“Certainly her career was very helpful to the town, and I appreciate it,” said member Eric Stocker.

In an email to the Gazette, Farrell provided a limited response to many of the allegations contained in DeFant’s resignation.

“The Select Board does not agree with the representations included in this letter,” Farrell wrote. “At this time we will have no further comment regarding the contents of the letter.”