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Future of Faulkner Park at issue

  • A gnome figurine sits on a fallen branch, left by a walker along the Faulkner Trail between Faulkner Park and the South Peak of Mount Tom, in Woodstock, Vt., Friday, May 28, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dara Safizadeh, left, and Mora Coon, of West Hartford, Conn., walk the Faulkner Trail to the South Peak of Mount Tom in Woodstock, Vt., Friday, May 28, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/30/2021 8:30:20 PM
Modified: 5/30/2021 8:30:16 PM

WOODSTOCK — In her will, Marianne Gaillard Faulkner set up long-term funding for a park she dedicated in her husband’s name, a place “to be used for rest and quiet and not for sports or other noisy activities,” the document states.

That was in 1958, when Faulkner’s long and remarkable life concluded and her generosity to Woodstock began. She had created a trail up the south side of Mount Tom in 1937, on land she and her husband owned, then in her will gave the 25-acre parcel to the public and set up a trust to maintain it with the stipulation that the park be established.

Since then, that arrangement, in which the park and trail have been maintained with money from the trust, has been taken for granted. But a proposal by the trustee of the Faulkner Trust, which is managed by JPMorgan Chase, to give the parcel to the town, along with an endowment to pay for its upkeep, has led to a dispute that seems destined for legal action, with both sides contending that they’re acting in accordance with the wishes of a woman who died more than 60 years ago and that they’re offering the best plan to preserve the park and trail.

“Faulkner Park is the most peaceful, restful park I know of,” Mary Riley, chairwoman of the Woodstock Selectboard, said in a recent interview.

No one wants to see that change, but the trust’s proposed change in governance has touched off a storm of nightmare scenarios that, however unlikely, is now steering the conversation. On the bright side, it’s also bringing Marianne Faulkner and her largesse back into view.

Marianne Gaillard was born in 1859 in Mobile, Ala., in what would soon become the Confederate States of America. Her mother’s family was from Etna, and they moved back there when she was 6. Her father died when she was quite young.

She married Edward Faulkner, who was a partner in a prosperous upholstery company in New York. She purchased the former Woodward Mansion in Woodstock and it later became her full-time residence after Edward’s death in 1926.

She was a noted philanthropist in her own time, including a gift in 1947 that doubled the size of Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital, and a bequest that set up a trust in her and Edward’s name in 1958. DHMC renamed its Doctors Office Building the Faulkner Building in fall 2009, in her honor.

She also donated property and money to set up the Woodstock Recreation Center and a home for seniors called The Homestead, not far from Faulkner Park. All three are funded in part with money from the Faulkner Trust, which in 2017 held around $9.6 million, according to the Vermont Directory of Foundations.

A representative for the trust first spoke with members of Woodstock’s Billings Park Commission, which oversees some of the trails in town, about transferring Faulkner Park to the town in late 2018, town records show. The trustee, Aaron Tesavis, of JPMorgan Chase, and a lawyer for the bank, Scott Johnston, appeared before the Selectboard on Nov. 19, 2019, and proposed that the town take ownership of the park and trail along with $850,000 from the trust as an endowment to be used solely for their upkeep.

The proposal emerged at a challenging moment for the town, Riley said.

Longtime municipal manager Phil Swanson had died in July and the town was being overseen by an interim manager. Selectboard members hadn’t been briefed before the Nov. 19 meeting, and so were hearing the proposal for the first time. It led to some initial confusion, Riley said.

The idea behind the proposal was to make it easier for the town to care for the park and to coordinate use of the park and trails with the town’s trail network, which between town land, private land and the abutting Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park stretches over 30 miles, according to an October 2019 memo to the town.

“It would be far more efficient for the Town of Woodstock to own and operate the Faulkner Park and Trails given that this property is located within the Town’s boundaries, is maintained for the benefit of its residents and visitors and is actively promoted as one of its many attractive destinations,” the memo says. “Moreover, the Town of Woodstock is in a better position on a day-to-day basis to monitor and regulate activities that take place within the Park and Trails to ensure that they are consistent with Mrs. Faulkner’s vision and applicable laws and regulations.”

While this proposal seems sensible to a cross-section of town officials, land conservationists, trails organizations and others, it has not drawn unanimous approval.

In December, a group of mostly Woodstock residents incorporated the Friends of Faulkner Park as a nonprofit group led by Wendy Wright Marrinan, who lives on Mountain Avenue, near the park. Concerned Citizens for Faulkner Park, Inc., a group led by another Mountain Avenue resident, Linda Smiddy, a former New York City lawyer and Vermont Law School professor, was incorporated in late February. Both operate under the umbrella of the Faulkner Park Working Group.

These groups assert that the trustee’s proposal is flawed in several respects. The proposed endowment is insufficient to maintain the park and trail in perpetuity and would cut the park off from the lion’s share of the trust; and the proposal runs counter to Marianne Faulkner’s will, they contend in their written memos to the town.

The groups also don’t particularly trust the bank’s motives for shifting responsibility for the park and trail to the town.

The park and trail cost around $47,000 a year, on average, to maintain, and the $850,000 endowment would be enough to provide that funding, according to the trustee’s proposal.

But the citizen’s groups argue that the trustee’s initial proposal said that such a sum would provide for only 20 years of upkeep, and the estimate was later changed to say “in perpetuity.”

If the park is going to be managed by something other than the trustee, then it must be a “charitable organization,” they said.

“The town is a municipal organization, but it is not a charitable organization under the definition of the IRS,” Smiddy said in an interview.

As the trust reads the will, what Faulkner wanted was for the park to be owned by a tax-exempt organization, and a town is, by its nature, tax exempt, Johnston noted in an April 21 memo.

The claims and counter-claims are similar. The citizens groups argue that a town is not a sufficiently durable entity to manage the trust because Selectboard members come and go.

The trust, in turn, notes that Friends of Faulkner Park, which has offered to take on management of the park, has existed for only a few months.

In a May 13 memo, Justin Brown, a Burlington-based lawyer for the citizens groups, wrote that “litigation may be unavoidable if the Trustee proceeds with the conveyance of the Park.”

“All of us are in this for the duration,” Smiddy said. “If the trust and the Billings Park Commission and the Selectboard refuse to sit down with us at the table … and they choose to resolve this with litigation, we will be there.”

For now, all parties are awaiting an interpretation of Faulkner’s will by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office. Further legal action could ensue, particularly if the state rules that the trust can convey the land and endowment to the town.

On a sunny morning last week, the park was, as Marianne Faulkner’s will required, a place of rest and quiet.

Set back from Route 4 and the more heavily touristed quarters of Woodstock Village, the park is planted in mature trees, mainly maple and beech and tall pines.

Even this poses an issue to the citizens groups, which see the potential for financial disaster in having to remove the pines or clean them up after a storm.

On a sunny morning in the park, such problems can seem far away.

To Riley, a longtime Woodstock resident and a former town employee who now works part-time in the town clerk’s office, the threat of litigation over Faulkner’s gift seems equally incongruous.

“All I ever see of Mrs. Faulkner is a very pleasant woman,” she said. “I can’t believe she ever would have found it in herself to initiate litigation against the town. She was so giving.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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