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'Dark Knight' slows coast into Six Flags

Members of the Zoning Board of Appeals met at Town Hall last Friday to discuss Six Flags New England constructing their latest roller coaster "The Dark Knight" without a building permit. Reminder Publications photo by Katelyn Gendron
By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

AGAWAM The "Bat Signal" will not illuminate the skies over Six Flags New England just yet as the city's Building Commissioner issued a stop work order last week on the construction of the park's latest roller coaster, "The Dark Knight."

According to city officials, Six Flags New England had already begun construction on the approximately $7 million indoor roller coaster without a building permit.

"If we let just anyone build without a permit what's the point of having a [Zoning] Board of Appeals?" Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) member James Marmo asked Friday at the board's special meeting.

The ZBA met at Town Hall Friday morning to discuss Building Commissioner Dominic Urbinati's issue of the stop work order and their role in any further action. The board decided to leave the project under Urbinati's jurisdiction.

ZBA Clerk Joseph Conte explained that neither the board nor Urbinati have viewed any final plans for the ride and that there have been previous concerns about the safety of the facility.

"The [building] plans were rejected after a meeting [earlier this year] with the fire, state and building inspectors because of the fire suppression system, exit ways, smoke detectors and sprinkler systems," Conte said in an interview with Reminder Publications. "This is no ordinary building with no ordinary set of procedures. It's a 70-foot high building with a roller coaster inside."

Conte explained that city officials requested that Six Flags gain plan approval from the state before moving forward. Melissa Pinkerton, public relations manager at Six Flags New England, said they will be meeting with the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety in Boston on March 5.

"This is the first indoor coaster in this area and there were a lot of questions to be answered," Conte said. He added that numerous questions and the project's time sensitivity prompted the ZBA to turn over the project to Urbinati so that he may work with Six Flags officials on a daily basis.

Six Flags New England Park President Larry Litton said at Friday's ZBA meeting that construction began on the project "at their own risk" in order to meet the Memorial Day opening deadline. This coaster is also projected to open in May at two other Six Flags theme parks: Six Flags Great America in Illinois and Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey.

"We put together a very tight timeline," Litton said. "We did this at our own risk of losing the work crew." He added that only eight to 10 percent of the entire project has been completed by work crews.

"The public needs to understand that there is a process and even Six Flags needs to be held accountable," Mayor Susan Dawson said. "From this mayor's office everyone will be held accountable." She added that she will continue to work with park and city officials to ensure that the ride is opened by Memorial Day.

"They [Six Flags] now need to give me construction documents and a building application so that I can review them," Urbinati said. "I have to see if the building meets the Massachusetts [State] Building Code."

When asked if the current construction would have to be torn down, Urbinati said he was unsure at this time.

The ride is being constructed in the DC Comics section of the park at the site of the former "Batman Stunt Show Area." "The Dark Knight" indoor roller coaster is based on the latest Batman movie, "The Dark Knight," slated for theatrical release on July 18.

Six Flags gained approval from the ZBA earlier this year for a special building permit allowing the ride to be constructed higher than 45 feet the height limit as stated in the town's zoning bylaws.

Litton explained that city officials have been far more stringent in their interpretation of the state building codes and town bylaws because the ride is an indoor coaster as opposed to the park's outdoor coasters.

"We [Six Flags New England] were essentially working under a set of guidelines based on past practices with the town of Agawam," Litton explained as to the construction timeline, adding that there was no "malicious intent" behind the premature building.

"At the end of the day [before the ride is opened] everything has to be approved by the Department of Public Safety, the building inspector and the fire department," Pinkerton said.

Pinkerton explained that the contractors being used to build the new ride are ones that have worked with the park on prior projects. She said that she has every confidence that prior to the work stoppage they were adhering to state building regulations.

Pinkerton said Six Flags New England is anticipating receipt of the finalized plans for the ride sometime this week.