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Council debates conservation restriction on Bear Hole

Feb. 25, 2020 | Sarah Heinonen

WEST SPRINGFIELD – “Everyone agrees. I want [Bear Hole] protected – I disagree with this process,” Daniel O’Brien told his fellow town councilors and the large group of residents that had convened in the West Springfield Town Hall on Feb. 18.

The council was debating whether to accept a preliminary draft of an agreement in which West Springfield would receive $1 million in exchange for Mass Audubon and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) holding a conservation restriction (CR) on approximately 1,465 acres of Bear Hole Reservoir, spanning West Springfield and Holyoke.

During the public comment period many residents voiced their opinion on the value of Bear Hole and whether they support the CR.

Residents who were in favor of the CR cited the draft nature of the agreement, the shifting priorities of politicians, interest from developers and the benefit of a proposed maintenance trust easing the town’s financial burden.

Those who spoke against the restriction said they were not convinced control would remain with the town and wanted more time to vet the agreement.

All told, more than a dozen residents spoke over the half hour of public comment time, with approximately double the residents in favor of the CR as opposed.

Councilor Anthony DiStefano said that while he wasn’t happy with the “expediency” of the process, “the mayor saw a problem and a situation that required action and he formulated a plan to resolve it. That’s just good government.” That said, he added, “I do not believe the town needs protection from itself.”

Councilor Michael Eger addressed a representative from the Mass Audubon asking what additional investment from the town the organization is looking for. The representative answered that they were not, at which point Eger said that it was not realistic.

“When someone says I’m going to give you something and expect nothing in return, I’m looking for a catch,” Eger said.

Councilor Nathan Bech asked Town Attorney Kate O’Brien what the process would be to leave the agreement in the future. She said it would require a two-thirds vote by the State House.

“You’d have to negotiate with [Mass Audubon and DCR] the reversal of this. So you’d have to basically buy your way out of the conservation restriction,” O’Brien said, adding the opinion, “because they’d pay for this in perpetuity, I can’t imagine they'd be very receptive to that.”

In response to a question regarding the potential future use of Bear Hole as a water source for the town, the Mass Audubon representative said that could be worked into the final agreement.

Councilor O’Brien referred to the draft of the CR, saying, “why can’t we do this as a town and have to answer to no one but ourselves?” Later in the meeting, Councilor Sean Powers said that it would cost “tens of thousands of dollars” to hire a law firm to draw up a CR. He also raised questions regarding who would manage the trust and invest the money.

Council President Brian Griffin took issue with the council having not seen the appraisal for the land.

“Let’s look at this appraisal – vet it out,” Griffin said. “If you don’t see an appraisal, how do you know the value of the land is accurate?”

Powers said that the biggest push back is the control issue.

“We’re being given a million dollars to continue to own the land and say that we’re going to continue to use it the way we use it today,” Powers said.

“There are a lot of questions I have. What does the Mass Audubon require? What does the DCR require, whether it’s the expansion of trails, maintaining any of those recreational trails, the recreational activities we perform on them?”

Powers added that if the final draft is unsatisfactory, the town can refuse to sign.

“It’s a great opportunity that we should not vote down. We have to see what’s out there,” Powers said of the opportunity.

“The more you dig into it, the more you learn. I can tell you that what’s being proposed is not a bad thing,” Councilor Edward Sullivan said. He compared the CR to an easement.

“They’re paying us a million dollars as an easement not to develop the land. Sullivan said. “You still maintain the land, you still own the property, you still have control over it, you still have liability over it.”

“Empowered citizen advocates will outwork any paid state bureaucrat,” Eger said. He then lodged an objection to the vote, asking that it be put off until the next meeting.

Griffin explained that since Eger’s was the second objection to a vote on this issue, the first being on Feb. 3, four councilors would be required to support the objection for it to stand. Eger, Griffin, O’Brien and Bech supported the objection. The issue will be taken up for vote at the March 2 meeting.

In other business, the council voted to transfer $12,475 to fund the FY20 West Springfield Clerical Association contract, $70,770 for the West Springfield School Department Education Association (WSSDEA) Unit D contract, and $462,203 for the general fund cost of the FY20 WSSDEA Unit A contract. The amount of $79,205 was transferred for the FY20 West Springfield Firefighters Association contract.

On the FY 21 budget, the mayor has asked for a 5 percent reduction and a level-funded budget.

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