Bear Hole conservation restriction completed, council debates ESE zoning change

June 24, 2020 | Sarah Heinonen

WEST SPRINGFIELD – At the June 15 West Springfield Town Council meeting, Town Attorney Kate O’Brien-Scott praised the work that went into the new Bear Hole Conservation Restriction. She said the new restriction is tailored to West Springfield.

A conservation restriction jointly proposed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and Mass Audubon failed a council vote earlier this year amid concerns about giving up land rights.

The largest change to the conservation restriction, O’Brien-Scott said, is language regarding reactivation of the reservoir at the town's discretion. In the original proposal, the town would have had to seek permission from DCR and Mass Audubon to reactivate the water source.

Councilors George Kelly, Daniel O’Brien and Michael Eger, all of whom objected to the first proposal, praised the new document as a better, less vague agreement.

Jennifer Howard of the DCR agreed with O’Brien that the experience of working together with the town was positive and Environmental Committee President Al Cabot commented that people on the town side have a better appreciation of what the DCR and Mass Audubon “bring to the table” in experience managing large pieces of land.

O’Brien-Scott specified that the next step, the creation of a management plan, will be crafted by the town and determine for what uses the space will be set aside. Further discussion on the management agreement will be had at the July 20 council meeting.

During a public hearing on the 915 Memorial Ave. zone change Noreen Tassinari of the Eastern States Exposition (ESE) said the land was purchased to “ provide an aesthetically pleasing entry from Memorial Ave. to our million plus guests.”

Currently, she said, Gate Nine’s entry sign is hidden by other businesses. She asserted that a clear entrance will help with public safety by reducing distracted drivers searching for the turn.

While resident Simon Brighenti, who volunteers as a historical interpreter at Storrowton Village, spoke in favor of the change for safety reasons, some of the councilors were not as positive about the move.

Eger said he is “uncomfortable” with a lack of information the council has received from ESE on the project. Kelly said he would prefer to see the property remain taxable, which it would not under the fairgrounds overlay district.

O’Brien said the ESE has changed its mind on what they want to do with the property, from a conference center to a 4-H education center, to now an entry for the fairgrounds.

“There’s no clarity. They just want it to put it in their district and I don’t think that's enough,”  O’Brien said. “I can’t, with a clear conscience, vote for something I don’t really believe is the right thing to do at this point. “

O’Brien also said councilors need to declare if there are any conflicts of interest regarding ESE prior to the council taking the vote. Councilor Anthony Di Stefano had already abstained from the discussion due to a conflict. Council President Brian Griffin assured O’Brien that he had checked into conflicts of interest and that there were none among the councilors.

Councilor Sean Powers contradicted O'Brien and said that as he understood, the intent of the property to act as an entrance was stated throughout the process.

He noted that if the building was torn down and something new is put in its place, ESE would have to get permission for most applications. Powers reminded his fellow councilors that the town would be discussing with ESE the way in which the fairgrounds are taxed at a future date.

Councilor Nathan Bech also spoke in favor of the zoning change.

“The Big E is an integral part of our community in West Springfield,” Bech said. “ As for bringing fairgoers, bringing education, bringing non-profit uses, I think that's wonderful.”

Councilor Edward Sullivan lodged an objection to taking action on the matter. Discussion was halted and the vote was postponed to July 20.

A 10 percent discount on residential sewer rates was past for seniors, veterans and people with certain disabilities. Kelly said that the council has moved quickly to address the water and sewer rate concerns of the public and that most issues take much longer to pass through the council.

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