Article 97 land use approval ‘common practice’

WESTFIELD – Approving an Article 97 request is a common practice, said state Sen. Michael R. Knapik and state Rep. Donald Humason.
Article 97 is the state law that pertains to protected park land. When a city wants to use such land to build something, such as a school, the land must be “swapped” for other land and a vote of the House and Senate, and signature of the governor, is required to do so.
Opponents of the new school set to be built on Ashley and Cross streets contend that the city violated Article 97 because the city is using part of the Cross Street Playground for its new elementary school campus without securing replacement land.
Knapik and Humason said it is a common occurrence across the state.
“It isn’t that unusual,” said Humason. “And it shouldn’t be difficult at all to get it passed.”
Because the legislature is not currently in session, the city anticipates approval when it returns to session in January. In the meantime, asbestos remediation is set to begin now that Judge Tina Page modified an injunction she granted to a group of neighbors suing the city.
Page ruled last week that the injunction pertains only to the disputed playground property and that the city, through its contractor, Fontaine Brothers Inc. of Springfield, can continue work on the building site.
Page issued an order requiring the city to pursue a resolution of the Article 97 issue through the General Court. That process requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the state House of Representatives and state Senate.
The Article 97 conversion will require the city to replace the playground facilities being incorporated into the school project. That conversion process requires the city to own the land where the replacement facilities will be constructed.
The opponents, led by Thomas Smith, plan to challenge the modification and hope to halt demolition of the old school building that most recently housed the school department offices.
Smith said the mayor is not listening to residents.
“The elected leaders, it appears, are fighting the people,” Smith said. “They’re looking for ways to get this project done and we’re trying to step up for our rights.”
Humason said Article 97 requests come forward weekly when the House is in session.
“It’s usually a unanimous vote,” he added. “They are very common.”
The town of Truro is currently in a similar situation to Westfield.  They had an Article 97 conversion pass the House and Senate and are awaiting the governor’s signature. Knapik said another Article 97 authorization took place for Holyoke Community College.
Humason said that the very first bill he got passed when elected was for three small parcels of land by the Great River Bridge, part of an Article 97 procedure that was necessary to move forward with the Great River Bridge project.
Knapik said in addition to Article 97 coming into play with bridge construction, it was also part of the building of Papermill Elementary School. The acceptance of land to compensate for the park land used to build the school did not take place until more than a decade after the school was built.
“Article 97s happen all the time,” said Knapik, adding that it is very common for the structure to be built before the land swap takes place.
In the case of Papermill School, the land given to the Parks and Recreation Department to make up for the park taken for the school is located across town behind Highland Elementary School. Some residents have complained that the land is not accessible and is not being used. The law states that the land must be for open space or recreation.
Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kenneth Magarian said the commission would love to see that land put to better use, but right now it is open space because there simply isn’t enough money or manpower to turn it into recreation space.
Magarian said the commission has been kept in the loop where the new school is concerned, and members look forward to a new sports facility.
Magarian said land on Main Street – not far from Cross Street – has been discussed as the location of a new park that would include several sports fields. He said the commission is excited about that possibility.
“We need fields,” he said. “Westfield is an active community and we do not have enough fields now. That area will be a tremendous boost for the city and we will try to be on the cutting edge.”
Magarian said “we hope it happens and we hope it happens soon.”
Magarian said the sale of that land has not taken place, but he hopes it moves forward and the city will seek grant money to build the facility.
Page allowed work to continue at the Ashley Street School site with the exception of the area formerly used as Cross Street Playground. Knapik said her decision to grant the injunction and her modification should be turned over.
“It’s unfortunate the law suit was filed as a delay tactic,” he said. “I hope the judge just misinterpreted what they could be doing. Clearly, Judge Page knows nothing about Westfield and what we’re doing.”
Knapik said the state environmental office began advising the city “early on.”
“State and federal environmental regulators were kept in the loop and everyone was fine with the process,” Knapik said.

To read Judge Page’s modified injunction, click here.

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