WESTFIELD – The Ashley Street School Project continues to move, not ahead but sideways.|
The most recent development consisted of a brief filed by those opposed to the project. On Aug. 7, Attorney Thomas Kenefick III filed a brief on behalf of the plaintiffs whose initial filing resulted in a temporary injunction that halted the construction of the school. That stipulation has remained in place since Sept. 18, 2012.
“I’m hopeful the judge will affirm or continue the injunction,” Kenefick said. “I think the city has yet to meet the requirements [of Article 97].”
Mayor Daniel Knapik addressed his reaction to the most recent filing. “It is good that we agree on the facts. We will now litigate the relevancy of article 97 applicability. Within the last two years there have been a number of cases that have better defined article 97 applicability and they all have been decided in a light favorable to our position,” he said.
Regarding the issue of eminent domain, Knapik stated, “We would have not advanced the project without Mrs. [Alice] Weilgus’ consent. In fact, this property has been of interest to the city for a decade and she certainly has had an interest in a sale … she has her idea of value and it doesn’t match without appraisal in accordance with the rules we operate under. In fact, she granted permission for access to the property for the appraisal; she defined her area of interest in the acquisition, and spent many hours with in our legal office discussing the acquisition.”
He continued, “Mrs. Weilgus has been down this road before with the land acquisition on Main Street. I believe she is playing both sides of the fence. She knows that with a land taking all of the perceived opposition aids her potential claim of increased value. With the Main Street Acquisition she made considerable more money than the appraised value during mediation.”
Given the fact that this project has been ongoing for a few years, Reminder Publications asked the mayor if there was anything he would've done differently to avoid the time it’s taken to get the project completed.
Knapik responded, “It’s a good project, its need has been demonstrated, it complies with all zoning requirements and in the end it will get built. The losers are the children of course and the families that have put up their own money to stop this worthy project.”
After months of inactivity, the National Park Service (NPS) declared its support for the conversion of Cross Street Playground in November 2013.
In a letter dated Nov. 18, 2013 the NPS stated, “The 46-acre replacement site is known as the Weilgus Property and is located approximately one-quarter of a mile from the converted parkland. The replacement site is of greater fair market value than the converted parkland and is of equal recreational usefulness and location.”
The mayor attributed part of the delay to the temporary government shutdown and sequestration.
On Sept. 7, 2012 the city hosted a groundbreaking for the site. In preparation for construction, Cross Street Playground was cleared and the former Ashley Street School was demolished. The site remained under temporary injunction while the NPS ruled on whether the Article 97 requirement had been satisfied for the use of Cross Street Playground as part of the new 600-student elementary school site, initially anticipated to open in September 2014. The injunction was implemented Sept. 18, 2012.
In March of 2013, the city submitted its environmental assessment of the playground, which is protected by the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, to the NPS.
In April of 2013, during the public comment period of the assessment Alice Wielgus, owner of the property at 146-150 Main St., submitted a letter stating that her land, which was named as a replacement site in the environmental assessment to accommodate the conversion of the Cross Street Playground, was not for sale.
In the approval letter, the NPS cited a condition for the conversion of the Wielgus property, “The city of Westfield will conduct a Phase 1 archeological survey prior to any ground disturbing development at the replacement site. Additionally, no ground-disturbing activities can take place on the replacement site until the Phase 1 archeological survey and proposed construction has been reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Officer in accordance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.”
The restriction was imparted because the property “contains two ancient Native American archeological sites that are recorded in the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s Inventory of Historic and Archeological Assets of the Commonwealth, but do not meet the Criteria of Eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places,” according to the NPS.
To date, the city has not released details regarding the archeological survey.
The City Council’s Legislative and Ordinance subcommittee has been reviewing whether to take the Weilgus property, 146-150 Main St., by eminent domain since June of this year. To date, the matter remains in subcommittee and a decision has not been made.
At the July 7 council meeting, Weilgus told the councilors that she did not want to sell her land and that she was against the idea of the property being taken by eminent domain.
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