Supreme Judicial hearing on Ashley St. school project to take place on April 6

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Ashley Street School overall site view_464488

WESTFIELD, Mass. (The Westfield News) – The Supreme Judicial Court hearing on the Ashley St. School and Cross St. playground projects, to determine whether the 1.37 acres of the playground adjacent to the former Ashley St. school property to be taken for the project is Article 97 protected land, will take place on Thursday, April 6 in Boston.

The Office of the Attorney General wrote a letter on September 30, 2016, asking the Supreme Judicial Court to hear the appeal of Smith et al. versus The City of Westfield citing “a substantial public interest in reversing the Appeals Court’s decision and clarifying an ambiguity in the Court’s decision” about what public lands are protected by Article 97.

The letter by the Attorney General’s office in September in support of the hearing focuses on the differing interpretations of Article 97 protection.

“This case raises an important recurring question about the precise post-taking or post-acquisition measures necessary to trigger the application of Article 97 to parkland that was not taken or acquired initially for Article 97 purposes but has since been continuously used for one or more of those purposes.”

“The government, including municipalities would greatly benefit from more clarity on what measures are ‘sufficient’ to designate land not originally acquired for Article 97 purposes as Article 97 land, thus triggering the Article’s important constitutional protection.”

The City of Westfield will be arguing that the site for the school is not subject to the provisions of Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution, which requires a 2/3 vote of the state legislature to release certain parklands from protected status, an argument the city has already won in the Superior Court and Appeals Court.

Certain improvements were made to Cross Street Playground and other local playgrounds in 1979, using federal grant funds from the Land & Water Conservation Fund. In exchange for this grant funding, the federal government placed a certain layer of protection on the playground.

The City worked with the National Park Service in 2014 and 2015 through its prescribed process to find suitable land on Ponders Hollow Road to replace the playground area that would be disturbed as a result of the construction of the elementary school on the Ashley Street-Cross Street property. The City has received approval from the National Park Service to convert a portion of the Cross Street site from playground to school property.

“We feel very confident that we’re going to win again. We’ve won at the lower court and the appeals court,” said Mayor Brian P. Sullivan after the decision to hear the appeal was given in January. He also said it could be months before the decision is made.

City solicitor Susan Phillips, who will argue the case for the City of Westfield, also believes that the SJC will rule in the city’s favor. “I feel like the law has been on our side every step of the way. I would hope they’ll be consistent,” Phillips said earlier. As for the Attorney General asking for the hearing in order to have a clarification from the court on Article 97 protection, “It seemed far-fetched that our case would rise to that level,” she added.

Thomas Smith, lead citizen-plaintiff in the case along with his brother Daniel, said following the decision to hear the appeal that even if the city prevails in the Supreme Judicial Court, there is still a pending suit on the replacement land on Ponders Hollow Road, and two other potential legal courses they could follow. “We’re going on and on, we’re committed to this,” Smith said following the decision.

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