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Council researches taking Weilgus property, residents weigh-in

Date: 6/27/2014

WESTFIELD – The decision whether to take the Weilgus property, 146-150 Main St., by eminent domain is being reviewed by the City Council’s Legislative and Ordinance subcommittee. The debate among citizens, however, is ongoing and full of intense emotion, especially in light of the recent summary judgment in favor of the city.
On June 18, Superior Court Judge Richard Carey ruled that Zoning Board of Appeals correctly awarded the city a special permit for the use of a setback easement of the Ashley Street School Project.
The plaintiffs in the case were Ernest Simmons, Elizabeth Simmons and Thomas Smith. The defendants were Michael Parent, Fontaine Velis, Martin Newman, Lynn Boscher, Alvin See (ZBA), the city of Westfield and Mayor Daniel Knapik.
During the past two regular meeting of the council, residents on both sides of the issue voiced their opinions during the Public Participation portion of the agenda. At the June 19 meeting, a hearing was conducted, affording the property owners an opportunity to speak. The lawyer representing the Weilgus family declined to speak.
Testimonies fell on one side or the other; there was no middle ground. Supporters cited unsafe and deteriorating school facilities and infrastructure as reason to take the Weilgus property to move the project forward. Those against the motion opposed the idea of taking the land to fix a problem created by the methods the city used to start the project.
Jeanine Braceland said, “Frankly, I am sickened by the fact that this beautiful and important school has not been already built. I sincerely cannot understand how building a beautiful state-of-the-art building can be a problem. Do we not want the best for our children?”
Katherine Zavras-Bentrewicz said, “It doesn’t matter how we got to this point, the fact is we’re here now – that’s another fact. It doesn’t matter what happened in the past. We’re here and we need to move forward now as a city, as a community. That’s the end of it.”
Mary Ann Babinski, a resident and former educator, said, “I think it really does matter how we got to this point. I worry about how we got to this point; how we get so many projects in this city that pits groups, neighborhoods, against one another. I have been in the same position a lot of the people that teach in Westfield have been in – fighting for kids, hoping you do the right thing for them, hoping you get them to understand what is right thing to do and grow up and realizing that you don’t take advantage of other people.”
Babinski continued, “What are we teaching these children? It’s all right, because if you want something, no matter what it is, get it whichever way you can, even if you have to steal something from somebody to do that.  This is not the right way to do it. It doesn’t make it right. We’re teaching kids that if you want something you can break the rules, you can bend the rules, you don’t have to play by the rules – if you want it, go take it. Go take it from an elderly woman who’s had this land for a long time.”
After months of inactivity, the National Park Service (NPS)  declared its support for the conversion of Cross Street Playground in November 2013.
In a letter dated Nov. 18, 2013 the NPS stated, “The 46-acre replacement site is known as the Weilgus Property and is located approximately one-quarter of a mile from the converted parkland. The replacement site is of greater fair market value than the converted parkland and is of equal recreational usefulness and location.”
The mayor attributed part of the delay to the temporary government shutdown and sequestration.
On Sept. 7, 2012 the city hosted a groundbreaking for the site. In preparation for construction, Cross Street Playground was cleared and the former Ashley Street School was demolished.
The site remained under temporary injunction while the National Parks Service (NPS) ruled on whether the Article 97 requirement had been satisfied for the use of Cross Street Playground as part of the new 600-student elementary school site, initially anticipated to open in September 2014. The injunction was implemented Sept. 18, 2012.
In March of 2013, the city submitted its environmental assessment of the playground, which is protected by the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, to the NPS.
In April of 2013, during the public comment period of the assessment Alice Wielgus, owner of the property at 146-150 Main St., submitted a letter stating that her land, which was named as a replacement site in the environmental assessment to accommodate the conversion of the Cross Street Playground, was not for sale.
In the approval letter, the NPS cited a condition for the conversion of the Wielgus property “The city of Westfield will conduct a Phase 1 archeological survey prior to any ground disturbing development at the replacement site. Additionally, no ground-disturbing activities can take place on the replacement site until the Phase 1 archeological survey and proposed construction has been reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Officer in accordance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.”
The restriction was imparted because the property “contains two ancient Native American archeological sites that are recorded in the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s Inventory of Historic and Archeological Assets of the Commonwealth, but do not meet the Criteria of Eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places,” according to the NPS.
To date, the city has not released details regarding the archeological survey.