Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Norton’s Woods at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences must be open to use by neighbors, but new restrictions and a dearth of answers are testing those boundaries.

Managers at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences are meeting Thursday morning with city councillor Marjorie Decker to discuss neighborhood outrage over new restrictions on its grounds, according to Decker and an academy spokesman.

Until then, the academy declined to elaborate on the conflict or to “refute a lot of things said at the City Council meeting” held Monday, said the spokesman, Paul Karoff.

The meeting follows an internal discussion Monday morning, according to a letter faxed to City Council offices.

“We are eager to resolve the issues,” said the unsigned letter, which arrived a little more than two hours before the council meeting — a gathering that included almost two hours of public comment, about half of which was devoted to the academy. “We held a meeting today and will continue to communicate with neighbors to discuss and resolve the issues.”

The Norton’s Woods portion of the academy’s five-and-a-half-acre estate — the woodsy, largely unmanicured area surrounding the lodgelike offices of the 230-year-old policy research center — has been open to school trips, neighbors and their pets for decades, but two weeks ago signs were posted changing the rules, allowing access only on weekdays and barring pets entirely on grounds it wasn’t safe inside. The grounds had already been closed after storms that brought widespread flooding.

To the parents suddenly denied a weekend place to show their children nature and the dog walkers making up much of Norton’s Woods most faithful visitors, the change demanded explanation. The speakers Monday said there had been none. Or, at least, none that was adequate.

Guessing at motivations

David Ekbladh, a visiting scholar at the academy in 2007 who stayed on in Cambridge, said he was shocked when he was stopped from entering Norton’s Woods by a Harvard University Police officer who said he could come in alone, but not with his pet.

“Even he didn’t believe what he was telling me — that it wasn’t safe for my dog, but it was safe for me,” Ekbladh said. “That’s part of the problem here — the credibility gap at the academy, that the academy hasn’t even been a neighbor, been a good citizen, and told people why it did what it did — but also that even the rationales they were giving and transmitting down to the people who had to implement their policy is strained at best.”

The letter sent to the council by the academy says “the reason for the temporary closure of the gates is the safety and security of everyone using the grounds,” but angry residents said they suspected it was to limit use for the academy’s side business of hosting meetings and social events, or because people at the academy are afraid of dogs.

“We’re guessing. That’s what I’ve noticed. Everybody’s guessing at rationales because they haven’t articulated one beyond this safety question that doesn’t make sense,” Ekbladh said. “Pets can’t be in, but people can be.”

The confusion was widespread.

“What puzzles me is what is motivating this thing,” said Rick Sullivan, a doctor who has used Norton’s Woods since 1955 and the person conjecturing that fear and dislike of dogs was behind the policy. “Nobody can reasonably claim the dogs are a nuisance. They’re not a danger to anyone.”

Neighbors argued that, to the contrary, the dog owners took care of the woods — perhaps better, some suggested, than the academy itself — and provided a sense of safety and friendliness that made the area around the academy more welcoming.

But it wasn’t the first time pet restrictions have been tried. Neighbor Michelle Biscoe, of Preston Road in Somerville, noted this and complained, “We should not have to fight this battle every five years.”

While the academy’s address is on Irving Street in Cambridge, the property is bordered most prominently on Somerville’s Beacon Street, and residents of the two cities share use of the grounds.

Hints from history

The academy does not advertise its connections with Harvard, where it was founded in 1779 and stayed for 60 years, but Decker and Mayor David Maher, in assuring members of the public they were in talks to resolve the situation, said Harvard was taking part in the discussions.

As several residents pointed out, the academy’s zoning variance for use of the property was made contingent Oct. 13, 1978, on it allowing the neighbors reasonable access to the grounds.

“For 30 years that promise was honored,” said Andrew Schlesinger, who lives nearby on Irving Street. “A month ago, after 30 years of responsible and beneficial use by the community, the people who run the American Academy of Arts & Sciences decided unilaterally, without even notifying the neighboring community, to bar dogs from its semi-public parklands, and furthermore to lock the gates on weekends. What has changed over 30 years?”

Technically, councillors brought up the issue Monday in a request for the city manager to investigate, but they indicated work resolving the problems were speeding along.

Perhaps the most poignant but sweetest moment in discussing Norton’s Woods came when Cambridge Street resident Greg Katsoulis begged to jump ahead in the queue because his increasingly fidgety young daughter wanted to speak. After sitting quietly for about 50 minutes, she’d begun literally climbing the walls in Sullivan Chambers — if only the short, carved walls separating the audience from where the councillors sit.

Hoisted up to the lectern and microphone, though, Erin Katsoulis became slightly shy.

“We wanted to play in the park, but, um,” she said, haltingly, “but I didn’t like it that we couldn’t go up to the park there.”

This post has been updated to reflect the Thursday meeting and comments from academy spokesman Paul Karoff.