By Katy Savage
The Select Board voted Tuesday, July 3 not to acquire Faulkner Park, settling a two-year-long discussion that widely polarized the town.
The board was unanimous in its decision at the special meeting, aside from Select Board member John Doten, who was not in attendance. After feeling intimidated by residents, Select Board chair Mary Riley was relieved the decision was over.
“I will never ever put a Select Board or any public officials through what we’ve been through,” Riley said after the meeting. “At every turn there was skepticism and distrust of what we were doing.”
She said Select Board members were deemed “inept, incapable and dishonest” throughout the two years. The controversy started when a trustee from JPMorgan Chase and lawyer Scott Johnston approached the Select Board in 2019 about gifting ownership of the park, which was a gift from Woodstock resident and philanthropist Marianne Faulkner.
Faulkner created the 25-acre park from a trust in her will, which today totals nearly $10 million. Faulkner’s trust, managed by JPMorgan Chase, covers expenses for Faulkner Park and another gift from Faulkner — a senior housing community in Woodstock called The Homestead.
The JPMorgan Chase trustees proposed giving the town the park along with an $850,000 endowment from the trust, which they said would be enough to maintain the park for 20 years.
“We believe that there are many situations with regard to the Park which could be more efficiently/ effectively handled on a local basis by the town of Woodstock,” Johnston said in an email to the Vermont Attorney General’s office in 2019 explaining the desired transfer.
“We believe that the town will be better able to … monitor activities in the park, maintain trees, grounds and trails within the park, collaborate with members of the National Park Service responsible for the neighboring Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller property,” Johnston said in the email.
But Wendy Wright Marrinan, a resident who lives on Mountain Avenue, near the park, said she was wary of JPMorgan Chase’s offer.
“The proposal struck me as off from the minute I heard about it,” Marrinan said.
Marrinan and a group of citizens established a nonprofit group called Friends of Faulkner Park in December 2019. Another group, Concerned Citizens for Faulkner Park, Inc., led by another Mountain Avenue resident, Linda Smiddy, formed in February 2020.
In May, Concerned Citizens threatened litigation if the Select Board voted to accept the park. “The threat/promise of litigation at the time is what did me in,” Riley said in a call with the Mountain Times. “I could not be a party that would result in litigation against the town of Woodstock. For all I’ve read about Marianne Faulkner, I can’t imagine she’d ever want to put the town in that position, either.”
Marrinan, who said she’s done extensive research on Mrs. Faulkner’s will and her intentions for the park, said she was concerned the future of the park would be in jeopardy under the Select Board’s control. While JPMorgan Chase said the $850,000 endowment would last 20 years, Marrinan argued it would only last 10-12 years.
Marrinan said there are deferred maintenance needs at the park. Marrinan also anticipated large expenses elsewhere in the town, such as a new high school and a new sewer system, and she said taxpayers may be hesitant to devote funds to the park.
“There are major infrastructure challenges and taxpayer burdens already at play that haven’t been realized,” Marrinan said.
Marrinan also argued JPMorgan Chase’s proposal is contrary to Faulkner’s will. “Town ownership is not considered [in the will],” Marrinan said.
Marianne Faulkner gifted the 25- acre park in memory of her husband in 1958. The gift included a trail up the side of Mount Tom, now called the Historic Faulkner Trail.
Faulkner also gifted funds to establish the Woodstock Rec Center.
While The Homestead and Faulkner Park are maintained by the same trust, the rec center is maintained by a separate trust within JPMorgan Chase, totaling about $1 million.
Faulkner suggested in her will that the Woodstock Rec Center should go to the town if the trust no longer wanted to operate it, but Faulkner did not mention transferring The Homestead or the Park to the town.
Riley said the board tried to get more money from JPMorgan Chase for the park but was unsuccessful.
Johnston, who represents JPMorgan Chase, declined to comment on the Select Board’s decision.
The Select Board called the special meeting on July 3 after confusion about advice from the Vermont Attorney General’s office (AG). While Johnston sought advice from the AG’s office in 2019 about the transfer of the park, it’s unclear if he received it.
Marrinan said the AG’s office agreed last month that the transfer of the park was contrary to Mrs. Faulkner’s will, but Riley said the Select Board never heard of such advice.
Charity Clark, chief of staff for the Attorney General, confirmed the Attorney General provided “general legal advice” about Vermont’s trust law and the “importance of the donor’s intent.”
Throughout the two years, some suggested the Select Board would use the $850,000 for projects unrelated to the park. Others thought the Select Board would turn the park into a parking lot.
“There were a lot of misunderstandings early in the process,” Riley said. “There were questions about any changes that might happen over there. I wish we had been able to allay those fears early in the process.” Riley said she herself was conflicted. “I’ve been on both sides of the fence many times,” Riley said. “I’ve gone back and forth with that for the whole two years.”
Riley even formed a committee to examine the transfer of the park in the fall of 2020. The committee voted 8-3 to transfer the park to the town, but Riley said she was looking for consensus, not a vote. This only led to further controversy.
“I was accused of loading the committee,” Riley said.
While the board rejected the offer, Riley said the board may be open to future options to maintain the park. “If anything comes to us again, I’d carefully consider what the options would be,” Riley said.
Friends of Faulkner Park, meanwhile, is interested in providing local oversight to the park. Marrinan said the group already has a forestry management plan.
“Nobody’s disagreeing with [the need for local oversight],” Marrinan said. “We can help, it’s a treasure. There are local people ready to roll up their sleeves…without burdening the town government.”
Riley hoped the decision by the board would end the controversy in town.
“I believe Mrs Faulkner would be disappointed in what has become of us,” Riley said at the meeting, later adding in a phone call: “I hope the reunification of the people of Woodstock has begun.”