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Judge rules against Article 97, injuction lifted

Date: 10/17/2014

WESTFIELD – After more than two years of being stalled, the Ashley Street School Project can move forward after a temporary injunction was removed.

On Oct. 10, Judge Daniel Ford of the Hampden County Superior Court ruled in favor of the city, lifting the temporary injunction against Cross Street Playground that was put into effect on Sept. 18, 2012.

The city intends to use Cross Street Playground as part of the new Ashley Street 600-student elementary school site. The decision came three days after Ford presided over a hearing where the plaintiffs sought to make the motion permanent. The project site has remained untouched since that restriction was implemented.

The plaintiffs contended that the Cross Street Playground is protected by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Article 97 Land Disposition Policy that requires replacement land to be designated before protected land is converted or repurposed.

“I knew all along it wasn’t subject to Article 97,” Mayor Daniel Knapik said. “I think it’s a shame. All the plaintiffs have done in the end was endlessly delay the project. It hurts the kids. We’re ready to move on.”

In his decision, Ford stated, “The plaintiffs argue that the use to which the land has been put subsequent to the taking may be considered in determining whether it as acquired Article 97 protection. They contend that it’s used as a playground for many years is entirely consistent with the purposes of Article 97.”

He continued, “But see Curley vs. Billerica, 2013 Mass. LCR LEXIS 128 (Aug. 8, 2013) (holding that a playground is not protected by Article 97 because a playground, unlike a park, is an improved space with structures, ball fields, etc. on it.”

Thomas Smith, one of the plaintiffs spoke to Reminder Publications about the news. He said, “We are preparing a ‘motion to reconsider’ for the court and we are appealing to a higher court. We should have these filed within a week. We have not ‘lost’ anything yet, and the city hasn’t won anything yet. Westfield may wish to remember how we acted when we were awarded the injunction in September 2012. We didn’t celebrate because we knew we didn’t win the game by scoring a run in the first inning. Westfield may have scored a run in the second inning. That doesn’t mean they’ve won.”

He continued, “Westfield’s main point of argument is that because all of the city’s actions to dedicate the Cross Street Playground to public recreational purposes were not reflected into the deed documents, the Cross Street Playground was never a playground dedicated for public use. They rely on a so-called administrative blunder.”

Smith added:
• In 1948, the Planning Board voted to approve transforming the Cross Street site into a public playground.

• In 1948, the City Council voted to transfer the land to the Playground Commission.

• In 1949, the Mayor requested, and received, $1,150 to compensate the Department of Public for grading work on the playground and for play equipment. The site was named the Cross St. Playground.

• In 1957, the City Council unanimously approved the re-naming of the playground to the John A. Sullivan Memorial Playground.

• The city of Westfield applied for state funding for the improvement of the playground.  Money received and spent.

Smith stated, “Westfield now claims that all of these official city actions are irrelevant because the intra-city transfer of land from the City Council to the Playground Commission and the intra-city actions to build and dedicate the site to a public playground never happened because of an administrative blunder? We think not.”

Knapik anticipated that construction of the Ashley Street School would resume in late winter 2014 or spring 2015, with a possible September 2016 opening. The city will soon re-bid the project, per advisement from the Attorney General’s office.

When asked the cost of defending the case, the mayor didn’t give a number, but explained that it was handled “in house” by the Law Department.

He said the biggest cost is the “unanticipated relocation of Juniper Park,” which is estimated to cost a couple hundred thousand dollars. That matter is still being considered by the School Committee. The lease expires in 2015.

“This school represents the last thing I said I was going to do. Will I run again? I don’t know. We’ll have to see how things go,” Knapik said.