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New zoning could derail Rails to Trails project, some say

By Katelyn Gendron-List

Staff Writer

WESTFIELD A new zoning ordinance, if passed by the City Council, would set off a domino effect of events, beginning with a $10 million development project into the downtown therefore changing the city landscape, and, according to some residents, would greatly delay the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail construction.

At the City Council meeting on July 5, developer Jayson Falcone, owner of Falcone Retail Properties, requested a zone change to a parcel of land in downtown Westfield. This zone change would bring him another step closer his proposed $10 million development project.

According to Larry Smith, Westfield city planner, Falcone would convert the existing Walgreens at 78 Main St., into a new Rocky's Ace Hardware store. The project would tare down the existing Rocky's, at 5 Free St., the adjacent bank and Free Street Shelter in order to build a new Walgreens, bank, shelter and additional office building.

"Clearly the city has to look at overtures when people are willing to make investments in the community," Michael Knapik, Massachusetts State Senator (R-Westfield) said. "The Falcone family had a good track record with the city and it's not everyday that you've got 20 developers coming into your town."

Many Westfield residents were also present at the standing-room-only City Council meeting on July 5, to voice their concerns about the effect that they believe the new zoning ordinance would have on the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail Project: a 3.5 mile non-motorized trail.

"The original plan was to have this trail go from Northampton to New Haven Conn., Worcester, Mass., Providence, R.I., and Newport, Conn.," Don Podolski, owner of New Horizons Sports in Westfield, member of the Columbia Greenway Citizens Advisory Committee, and member of the Non-Motorized Subcommittee of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission Transportation Committee said. "Certain segments have disappeared over the years but Westfield to New Haven is still a goal, and Westfield to Avon is doable."

Podolski, went on to say that he, like many other Westfield residents, are concerned that the zoning change will allow for Falcone to not only acquire the land but also delay the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail project, as Falcone is requesting the city remove the burm between Main Street and Thomas Street, which is part of the proposed trial project.

According to Smith, the already proposed cost of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail Project does not include this new development and will require an additional $250,000.

"Additional funding is not without a degree of challenge," Knapik said. "This is a hurdle that I believe can be overcome."

According to Knapik, the overall cost of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail Project is between $9 million and $10 million, without the additional cost of the removal of the burm.

"The city is trying to find a way to do both projects and we've gone too far down the road with the Rails to Trails project to stop now," Daniel Knapik, Ward 2 Westfield City Councilor said. "But when a developer wants to invest $10 million into your downtown you have to hear him out."

According to Richard Onofrey, Jr., Ward 5 Westfield City Councilor, the City Council has yet to vote on the zone change, as they will reopen the public hearing at the Aug. 16 City Council meeting.

"This Rails to Trails project depends on a lot of things, the zone change, what the developer wants to do with the land, and what the state decides as far as the rail bed is concerned," Onofrey said. "But the developer did say at the City Council meeting that if the bike trail doesn't fly that project won't happen."

Daniel Knapik also stated that the cost of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail Project will go up not only with the removal of the burm but also the much need construction of a bridge connecting Main Street to Thomas Street.

According to Onofrey, the City Council will reopen the public hearing on Aug. 16, where there will be an abbreviated review of the plan from the developer, and an opportunity for residents to speak out in favor or against the zone change before the City Council will make their eventual decision.