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Questions On Park Restrictions Linger For Select Board

LONGMEADOW, MA – While the town meeting was held more than three months ago, the Select Board is still discussing how to proceed with one of the articles – submitted by citizen petition – that was approved by voters.

Article 42 directed the Select Board to take any and all actions necessary to ensure the use of Bliss Park and Laurel Park for park and conservation purposes and to execute and record at the Hampden County Registry of Deeds any and all documents as may be necessary to protect said park and pursuant to Article 97 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, including, without limitation, a conservation restriction.

This article was submitted by a group of residents after two town building committees proposed utilizing portions of the parks for a new senior center and Department of Public Works. Ultimately, alternative sites were selected for both projects. However, the article was submitted as a mechanism to prevent any future development of the two town parks, and conserve it in perpetuity.

Town Manager Stephen Crane said he spoke to town counsel over the phone, and was advised that town meeting does not have the authority to make this kind of decision under the charter. Rather, it falls to the Select Board. The article, and subsequent passage at town meeting, represented an “advisory vote,” said Crane.

Crane told the Select Board he recommended looking at this issue in a “bigger context,” with an eye toward the town’s long-range plan and financial stability.

“We all know the town is largely built up,” he said. “The cost to provide high-quality services goes up every year. In the relatively near future, under the state Constitution, we are going to hit the limit on how much we can assess or increase property taxes. No one wants to see Bliss or Laurel developed. I understand how people feel. I never felt great about going deep into these parks and developing them. But my primary concern, if you do this (enact Article 97 restrictions on the parks), you tie future policy-makers hands, permanently, from having options.”

In 20 to 25 years, Crane said the town could be facing class sizes of 35 students, empty shifts within the police department, and closed doors at the town library, all due to the limits on available tax revenue.

“If we encumber these parcels through an Article 97 designation, and then decades from now the Select Board needs to use that land for development, there will be no alternatives,” he said. “I don’t necessarily object to the Select Board adopting this, I just feel compelled as town manager and town planner to say this will have a permanent effect. And we can’t predict if that effect will be detrimental to the services and quality of life in our community long-term.”

Select Board member Richard Foster agreed, stating that under the charter, this issue comes back to Select Board for a decision. He said that while he understands why this group of residents brought the citizens’ petition forward to the town meeting, he does not believe this action is in the best interest of the community as a whole.

“We (Select Board members) are on the inside, we see the numbers,” he said. “The fiscal crisis is eventually going to hit us, and we’re not going to have a lot of options. For us to arbitrarily take more options (for potential revenue) off the table is a very unwise direction for our board. I don’t think we are looking at the future of the total community when we do that. I encourage the board not to push forward with Article 97 (restrictions). Let another Select Board do it if they deem it important, but I can’t support it. I don’t think it’s a wise decision.”

Select Board member Mark Gold said he does not agree that the vote taken at town meeting was “advisory,” rather he believes it was binding.

“Nowhere in the article does it say, ‘Subject to Select Board approval,’” said Gold. “I thought this was a done deal. I suspect the people who passed it at town meeting believed they were voting on a final decision, not an advisory vote that then goes back to the Select Board. I don’t know why this is coming back to us. It’s not our decision. Whether I’m in favor of it or not, that’s what I heard (at town meeting).”
Other Select Board members, including Marie Angelides, said they also thought this matter was decided by voters at town meeting. However,

Angelides said she understands it’s a big decision that impacts the entire town, not just today but for many years to come.

“We are going to hit the wall, and run into a financial crisis,” she said. “It’s coming sooner rather than later. If we feel we need to re-affirm the vote, and get input from more residents, we could talk about instituting a process that would put it on the June ballot. But I don’t see the Select Board arbitrarily saying, ‘We know you voted that way, we just don’t like that idea.’ ”

Crane said he will ask town counsel to formalize his opinion on whether this measure can be decided through town meeting vote, or whether it needs to be enacted by the Select Board.

“It’s not a political thing,” said Crane. “We just need to determine if the legislative branch (town meeting) has the authority to issue that directive. I really just want to make sure the process is right. We need to be clear on the process.”

Crane said he would reach out to town counsel and bring the formal legal opinion back to the Select Board for further discussion.

– Article by Sarah Leete Tsitso