Town Council discusses billboards, the fairgrounds, and voting locations

July 27, 2020 | Sarah Heinonen

WEST SPRINGFIELD – Zoning overlay districts were a topic of much debate at the July 20 West Springfield Town Council meeting.

First, a public hearing was conducted on a proposed billboard overlay district. The overlay district would allow a digital billboard and a standard billboard to be placed on opposite sides of I-91, and would regulate the size, content and maintenance of the advertising platforms.

Attorney William Fennell, who represented the petitioner, said the billboards would be located on 250 square feet of currently unused town-owned land in the “least offensive position” to the “residential character of the town.”

Fennell noted that the overlay district would make money for the town through both the leasable ad space and tax revenue from the land. He estimated the revenue at approximately $100,000 per year for up to 30 years. He said the lessee would be responsible for billboard maintenance costs.

Fennell also touted the safety benefits of the digital billboard, saying it could be used for Silver Alerts, Amber Alerts, safety notices.

Resident Melissa Henson spoke against the district. She said that the land had been donated by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

“In the agreement, it was for passive recreation, flood plain, and access to utilities,” Henson said. While Fennell had said it was likely most residents were unaware of the town land, Henson said the area was well utilized by residents as part of the riverwalk. She also noted that it is an eagle nesting area and was concerned that the light pollution or noise from the billboards would impact the birds’ breeding environment.

Fennell responded to each of her concerns. He said as an overlay district they would not be changing the intended recreational use of the land. Light pollution would not be a problem, he said, since digital billboards meet national criteria designed to keep the LED screen from distracting drivers, and neither the digital boards nor the standard ones admit any noise.

“I just can’t see how this will disturb any wildlife,” Fennel said. In response to a question from Hensen, Fennell said the conservation commissioner would be consulted when the petitioner goes before the town during the building permit stage.

“It’s premature to get them involved at this point,” Fennell said.

Another Resident, Chester Zymroz, echoed many of Henson's concerns.

“I’m hoping the council will look at the intent of the gift from the Grinspoon Foundation,” said Zymroz, who is on the sign ordinance committee. He claimed the overlay would convert the land from passive recreation to commercial property. He also described the move as unfair to other businesses in town like Home Depot and AAA, who will lose visibility from the highway.

A member of the West Springfield environmental committee also pushed the council to consider eagle nesting sites in the area and said the National Heritage Endangered Species program had not yet been contacted regarding the project.

“That riverwalk is like an oasis. Would you want a billboard out in the middle of Mittineague Park or Bear Hole or the Main Street Playground?” he asked rhetorically.

When it was time to vote on the project, Councilor Edward Sullivan said he needed more information before the vote and wanted to know if the land is designated as undevelopable under state article 97.

Councilor Nathan Bech expressed a similar concern, wanting to know the intended purpose of the donated land.

“Who else is ever going to give anything to the town if we’re going to turn around and not respect their wishes,” Bech pointed out.

Council Vice President Brian Clune voiced his “very strong opposition” to delaying the vote due to the public safety benefit and revenue, but eventually the vote was continued until Aug. 17 so more information could be gathered.

Councilor Dan O’Brien read a public remonstrance of Eugene Cassidy, the president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition (ESE). He had titled it “a portrait of entitlement.” In the letter, O’Brien stated that the head of security for the ESE had been arrested on multiple charges by the East Longmeadow Police Department (ELPD).

O’Brien quoted a MassLive article in which Cassidy defended the employee and criticized the arresting officer.

“He had a chance to jack up a retired FBI agent and that’s exactly what he did,” O’Brien quoted Cassidy saying in the news article.

“It is a classic ‘Do you know who I am?’ statement from someone who was accustomed in the past to special police privileges for Big E staff,” O'Brien said.

Addressing Cassidy directly, O’Brien said, “You represent West Springfield when you speak for the Big E, and your statements are unacceptable, and you should resign, in my opinion.”

O’Brien went on to tie Cassidy’s “sense of entitlement” to the way in which he has pursued extending the fairgrounds overlay district, an issue that was up for a vote that night. O’Brien has been vocal in his dismay at the shifting information provided by ESE regarding their plans for the property at 915 Memorial Ave.

He also said he “plays fast and loose” with the number of alcohol licenses The Big E is allowed and criticized the 25-year-old agreement with the town on the amount of tax revenue West Springfield receives from the fair.

Finally, O’Brien took Cassidy to task for trying to move forward with the 2020 Big E fair despite not providing the town with information on how he would provide pandemic safety.

“It was only after seeing the futility of trying to force the issue that you graciously decided not to hold the 2020 fair,” O’Brien said, noting that it was only canceled after the town refused to issue licenses.

Clune agreed that Cassidy’s comments were “entirely inappropriate” and “smacks of privilege.”

Councilor George Kelly reiterated previous criticisms of the fairgrounds overlay district and ESE’s request to add property to it. The main concern Kelly has expressed is the possibility of removing the property, which was purchased by the ESE for $1.5 million, from the tax rolls by moving it into the overlay district.

“It’s a great business. They put West Springfield on the map, but we’re their host community. They need to work with us,” Kelly said.

Councilor Michael Eger said he is often made aware of issues in which the fair “bullies” other businesses in town. The ESE lies in Eger’s District.

DiStefano asked town attorney Kate O’Brien-Scott how the fairgrounds overlay district affects tax exemption. O’Brien-Scott explained that the overlay district does not necessarily have a direct effect on the taxability of a property within it.

“Zoning says what you can do with a property and taxation is dependent upon what you actually do with the property,” O’Brien-Scott said.

Following up on that, DiStefano said expanding the overlay district would not allow the ESE to automatically take the property off of the tax roll. He said insinuating otherwise “grandstanding at best” and “being misinformed at worst.”

The real question he said is whether extending the overlay district would negatively impact the town.

“I have not seen any evidence to suggest that’s the case,” DiStefano said.

Sullivan also spoke in favor of the overlay extension. Based on the ESE’S most recent plan – to create a clearer and more efficient entrance to the fairgrounds – Sullivan said, “Any work done to improve the traffic and aesthetics of Memorial Ave. is only going to enhance West Springfield’s image.”

In a 5-4 vote the extension to the overlay district passed.

The locations of polling places for the upcoming elections have been consolidated from eight to two. The purpose behind the change is to reduce the number of poll workers needed and, therefore, the opportunities for exposure to COVID-19.

For those in precincts 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, the location for voting in the 2020 election is the West Springfield High School at 425 Piper Rd. For those in precincts 1 and 2, the voting location is the First Congregational Church at 108 Park St.

Eger explained that some voters from precincts 1 and 2 walk to their polling place and keeping the location in the area serves to enfranchise them. O’Brien applauded Eger for calling the issue to the council’s attention.

“[Eger’s] very good at advocating for his constituents and I commend him for making that point,” O'Brien said of his colleague.

DiStefano expressed concerns about “funneling” voters into the high school while school is in session. While fewer poll workers would be exposed, he argued, the workers at the high school would be at a greater risk due to contact with far more people. He suggested amending consolidation to just the Sept. 1 primary and adopting a “wait-and-see” approach for the Nov. 3 presidential election. The council agreed and the motion passed.

The council voted 7-2 to adopt the conservation restriction (CR) for Bear Hole. Eger, who had been vehemently opposed to the original CR presented in February, spoke in favor of adopting the new version, which he said, put more control in the town’s hands. Sullivan and O’Brien also spoke in favor of the new CR.

DiStefano, however, said he still did not believe in a conservation restriction run by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation and Mass Audubon.

“I think there will come a day, when most of us aren’t here, that we’re going to look back and say we forfeited the rights to the greatest asset in town to a bunch of bureaucrats in Boston,” DiStefano declared.

Despite his misgivings, he praised the work done by his fellow councilors and the conservation restriction committee to put more control in the hands of the town.

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