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Grant: Parks (Still) At Risk

This spring, when Town Meeting voters passed article 42 to reaffirm the status of Laurel Park and Bliss Park as parkland with the protections of Article 97 of the state constitution, they thought they had settled the question of whether these parks would be protected. Longmeadow residents watching the Aug. 21, 2017 Select Board meeting now know that these parks, and other parks in town, are still at risk. The discussion at the Select Board meeting shows that residents opposed to development of our parks still have much to worry about.

The Town Manager said he had obtained an opinion of Town Counsel that article 42 was merely advisory and that it was completely within the discretion of the Select Board to decide whether to take the legal steps to give the parks Article 97 status. What’s more, the Town Manager suggested that it would be unwise to confer that status as it would tie the hands of a future Select Board to open the land for private development.

Board member Mark Gold said that he thought the vote at Town Meeting meant that protection of Laurel and Bliss parks was a “done deal,” and a couple of other members seemed to agree. The language of the article was unmistakable in its intent, and it was certainly not to give an advisory opinion that the Select Board was free to ignore. The vote was to “direct” the Select Board to execute and record certain legal documents in the Hampden County Registry of Deeds. The explanatory language included with the warrant article stated, “the intent of this petition is to compel the Town of Longmeadow to effect legal protection for Bliss Park and Laurel Park . . .”

When citizens vote to “direct” and to “compel” town officials to take actions to protect parkland, it is sophistry to claim that they were merely giving advice to the Select Board. The frustration for the supporters of this article must be supreme. After all, they had argued with good reason that the 1934 vote to create these parks was clear. The 1934 Town Meeting had voted to establish these lands “as a public park and public playground.” Not good enough said our town officials, who were eyeing the parks as potential sites for the DPW complex and a new senior center.

So rather than fight a battle over the meaning and intent of the 1934 vote, park supporters introduced a citizen’s petition to “reaffirm” the parks as parks and to give them legal protection. Surely that would put the issue to rest, they thought.
The Town Manager will get a written opinion from Town Counsel before the Select Board makes a final decision on whether to follow the Town Meeting vote, but the Town Manager seemed to suggest that the legislature (Town Meeting) could never compel the executive branch (Select Board) to take action. If that proposition is endorsed by Town Counsel and followed by the Select Board, it does not matter how clear, direct, and specific a Town Meeting vote is on this subject.

No matter how this legal jousting turns out, there is a basic political question of whether the town officials currently holding power want to exchange our parks for cash. The reason why we have been having this discussion about protecting our parks is that the Town Manager and some members of the Select Board keep talking about developing our parks and fields. The Town Manager was blunt in saying the Select Board should not follow the Town Meeting vote because some future board might really need the money. He said he was thinking that day might come in 25 years, but by his logic, it could come next month. Without legal protection, the fate of our parks depends on a value judgment made by the town manager and the Select Board, whenever they decide to make it. After all, the Town Manager has already made a hard push to take a chunk of the Wolf Swamp fields for the DPW complex.

During the Aug. 21 discussion, Richard Foster made it clear he wanted the parks available for development, and he has already endorsed bulldozing Turner Park for commercial development. In doing so, he disparaged the voters who supported the article as concerned about their own backyards and not the town’s overall welfare – that regard for the big picture is apparently confined to people who want to cut down trees and lay down asphalt. Marie Angelides seemed inclined to follow the Town Meeting vote, but she also made it clear that Turner Park was fair game for development. Board Chair Tom Lachiusa indicated he was inclined to protect Laurel Park, but he said he wanted at least part of Bliss Park to be open for development.

It is this lineup of Select Board members and the outlook of the Town Manager that will make the status of our parks an open issue for the foreseeable future. Some of our town officials are ok with remaking Longmeadow into something that more resembles East Longmeadow, a place with more commercial property and less abundant conservation land. Reasonable minds can disagree about that policy choice, but it is a choice that Longmeadow has steadfastly refused to make. Longmeadow residents will need to remain vigilant to preserve our recreational fields and parks.

Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His may be reached at alex.grant68@yahoo.com. This is an opinion piece, and the views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Longmeadow News or its staff. Opposing viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged. Email pressreleases@thelongmeadownews.com for more information.