Our friend Wendy Wakeman, newly elected as chairman of the North Andover (Mass.) Board of Selectmen, was interviewed recently by my son Bud for a school project. Bud asked Wendy what skill her job required most of all.
"You have to be able to talk," Wendy said. "You have to be able to persuade people to your point of view."
Unfortunately, in local politics, sometimes nobody can persuade anybody of any point of view, and events proceed apace to minor disaster. North Andover appears likely to become the location of the newest Foxy Lady franchise strip-tease club, already billed as "the largest gentleman's club in New England." The clientele at the Dunkin' Donuts on Route 125 will, perforce, become far more colorful.
Here's how it all happened.
The Thomson family owns a multi-acre parcel of land in a mostly commercial wedge south of town. A giant Lucent campus dominates the neighborhood, such as it is, which was zoned long ago for "adult" entertainment, so as to keep such businesses out of the town proper. The Thomsons, seeking to put the land to profitable use, applied in 1997 to the Board of Health for permission to open a trash transfer station. The Board, then dominated by a rigid environmentalist majority, turned them down, citing concern with pollution.
The Thomsons, considering their options, came up with the idea of opening a strip club. This is all presumption, but presumption on good authority: They apparently figured the town would recoil in horror from the nudie club proposal and cave on the permit for the trash transfer station. Guess again. The Board did not cave. They turned down the application for what was to be, at that time, a smaller club, in 2001. The Thomsons sued.
When we arrived in town last summer, the issue had already heated up from simmer to boil. Our mailbox regularly received alarmist flyers about the strip club, urging public protest. Residents worry about the influx of -- well, you can imagine what. The new club would lie directly off Route 495, the key commercial artery of northeast Massachusetts. North Andover fields only four police officers at any one time. The Board of Selectmen had been vigorously hushed by a consulting attorney, who warned that dancing naked was a free speech right in the Commonwealth, and that criticism of the strip club proposal by public officials could be interpreted as a civil rights violation.
The appointment of a new member to the Board of Health -- ending the 15-year environmentalist majority -- led some town officers to figure that the trash transfer permit could be re-considered in settlement negotiations for the lawsuit. Jeffrey Thomson, quoted last Tuesday in the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, said (very carefully, if in tortured syntax), "We will get to a point where we're too far down the road for the adult entertainment process to stop it."
In a rowdy public hearing of the Zoning Board the next day, Thomson said the argument with 150 overheated residents was nothing personal. "This is business."
So what does the Thomson family really want? The trash transfer station after all? Or has the prospect of leasing land and a building to the Foxy Lady franchise for a fat fee begun to look too attractive?
The Thomsons certainly will get one of the two businesses they want. Property owners have rights, as one of my sources points out. But the whole six-year encounter serves as an object lesson in politics -- bad politics, unfortunately, by the town's prior Board of Health, who ultimately backed the local government and a local landowner into a corner that it may not now be possible to escape.
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