Betsy’s Corner: CPA Funds Can Support Bliss and Laurel Parks

We often drive by the signs at the entrances to Bliss and Laurel Parks. We assume the 1936 date engraved there marks the beginning of their existence. In the Fall of 2016 when development posed a threat to Bliss Park, a group of citizens began to research the parkland’s history and found the answer to this question presented an interesting story dating back to the late 19th century and the genesis of our Town’s early “water supply.”

Between 1894 and 1924 things changed rapidly in Longmeadow. In that short time frame, a total of 742 homes were built. Our rural farm community was transformed into a suburban commuting town. Three events, involving neighboring communities, were contributing factors:

1) In 1890 Springfield’s 735-acre Forest Park was dedicated creating a green buffer between our suburb and the city. We donated land to ensure that buffer.

2) In 1893 we separated from the eastern, more rural part of our community which was incorporated as East Longmeadow in 1894.

3) In 1896 the Springfield Trolley extension was created providing trolley access from Longmeadow Street to downtown Springfield.

At Town Meetings on December 19, 1894 and January 29, 1895, following East Longmeadow’s incorporation, our community approved bonds to finance a water supply plant and sewer system for our emerging suburb. In September 1895, James C. Cooley did “gift, grant, bargain, sell and confer…” a 9.18 acre parcel to “the inhabitants of Longmeadow.” This land, on which flows Cooley Brook, was the first step toward the establishment of this public water system. Shortly thereafter a reservoir expansion of the brook was created.

In 1899 the State Legislature granted Longmeadow permission to “supply itself and its inhabitants with water for the extinguishment of fires and for domestic and other purposes…” under Chapter 267 of the 1899 State Acts. This enactment permitted the town to take land by eminent domain for that purpose. A total of five parcels were acquired by the spring of 1906 from the Bliss, Hooker, Ely, Towne and M. Cooley families. This acreage, along with the James C. Cooley land, formed the new Longmeadow Water Works Land totaling approximately +/- 80 acres. A map from 1910 clearly shows this new watershed.

Between 1922 and 1929, Town Meeting minutes show discussions and finally a vote on a southern extension to Laurel Street south from Converse Street that was constructed prior to 1930. This street extension bisected the Water Works Land creating two adjacent parcels (now Bliss and Laurel Parks). In 1916, Clifton Kibbe purchased land to the north of the watershed. By 1918, development of homes had begun between the Longmeadow Street trolley line and what would become the Laurel Street extension. These dwellings were completed by the end of the 1920’s. The first home homes to the east of the Laurel Street Extension and along Bliss Park were built in 1929 and continued through the early years of The Depression. Deed limitations on these parcels prohibited both the developer and future residents from removing sand to ensure the integrity of the watershed and it’s water quality.

Due to the Town’s rapid growth, it soon became clear a more substantial source of water was needed. In the early 1930’s, a contract was signed with Springfield for our water supply. The Water Works Land was transferred, by a majority vote at the February 28, 1934 Town Meeting, from the Water Department to, “the care and control of the Park Commissioners” as “… a public park and public playground…”

Discovery of this 1934 vote and the preceding history affirms the date inaccuracy of the park signs and gives us a different understanding of the land’s earlier use. The Water Works Lands were fully transferred to their current parkland status with this 1934 vote. In fact, the Olmsted Brothers, now known as a highly accomplished and respected landscape architectural firm, were engaged to present a plan for the parks in March of that year. The Depression interrupted the town’s ability to execute all the design’s components. And unfortunately, the change in use of the six original deeds that formed this land mass was never documented with the Registrar of Deeds. The sitting State Legislature at the time did acknowledge the land use transfer as a consequence of their earlier approval of the land taking by eminent domain.

Hold your hat as we take an 82-year leap to the fall of 2016. On October 25, 2016, the Town asked citizens to consider Warrant Article 7 “…to approve the construction of a new Adult Center at Bliss Park…” The 1934 Town vote that conferred park status to the land on which this development would sit was not presented. Fortunately, citizen volunteers had completed the research, previously presented, which clearly indicated that these parklands should be afforded protection under Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution. Citizens soundly defeated the request for development by a majority vote.

The volunteer group, Citizens To Save Our Parks (LCSOP), then sought to legally document the earlier 1934 vote and presented Article 42 on the Town Warrant at the May 10, 2017 Spring Town Meeting. The article compelled the town to effect legal protection for Bliss and Laurel Parks by requiring that the town “execute and record at the Hampden Country Registry of Deeds any and all documents as may be necessary to protect said parkland pursuant to Article 97 of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts…” Article 42 passed by a majority town vote.

In November of the following year, after a period of discussion and research, the Select Board requested the Town Manager take action to fulfill the May 10, 2017, town mandate. A filing was made at the Hampden County Registry of Deeds and was recorded this spring on March 9. Since then, LCSOP identified the omission of the first land acquisition in 1895 of the 9.18-acre parcel formerly owned by James C. Cooley from this recording through legal assistance provided by a “park friendly attorney” and his able intern. The town is now taking action to include this parcel with the lands recorded on March 9th so that the Registry of Deeds reflects the full parkland, some +/- 80 acres.

Meanwhile work to improve these parks has been ongoing since the fall of 2016. LCSOP wrote its first grant proposal to the Community Preservation Committee in November of that year. The Community Preservation Act (CPA) provides funds, 1% of our annual tax revenue, for open space and historic preservation. In the last two years the old Water Works Lands have been the beneficiaries of two grants totaling over $25,000. LCSOP has overseen the planting of 16 trees with help from the new Tree Warden, Dave Marinelli, seven new, ecologically sustainable picnic tables have been installed and, signage, fencing and a new park bulletin board have been erected near the main trailhead. Additionally, through the generosity of the Park & Recreation Department and Berkshire Bank, two new park benches have also been installed.

Longmeadow citizens will have another opportunity to support Bliss and Laurel Parks on May 14 when several new CPA grants for the 2019-2020 fiscal year appear on the Town Meeting Warrant. Article 23 will support the resurfacing of the playground area. Article 24 will fund the development of an ecologically sustainable Landscape Master Plan prepared by The Conway School. Existing infrastructure, landscape enhancement, trail integrity and waterway health as well as the 1934 Olmsted Plan will be respectfully considered. Article 25 will support the planting of trees along both sides Laurel Street adjacent to the parks. If you embrace the history of these parks and support the work being done please consider a YES vote for Articles 23, 24 and 25.

– By Betsy Huber Port
Thank you to Frances Cress for help with this article.