CHICOPEE — Neighbors are hoping a paper trail dating back more than a half-century will block the development of an industrial park off Fuller Road and preserve biking and hiking trails for generations to come.
A proposal by the quasi-public Westover Metropolitan Development Corp. to change the zoning for the property, officially known as 0 Fuller Road, kicked off a six-month battle with neighbors who believe the land was protected decades ago.
A quest for information about the land, sometimes referred to as the Slate Conservation Area, prompted residents to comb through decades-old deed records and newspaper articles, and sent city officials to the basement vault at City Hall to sift through handwritten meeting minutes from the 1960s.
“It is a grand mystery at the moment,” said city planner Lee Pouliot, who is tasked with searching for answers in old municipal records.
The issue became so contentious that Mayor John L. Vieau held a press conference in early June to address “false information” swirling around about the site. The mayor said he would post all municipal records about the parcel on the city’s website in an effort to answer questions and quash rumors.
A few days before the mayor’s announcement, the City Council unanimously supported a resolution to try to buy back the property — which it unanimously voted to sell 12 years earlier for use as an industrial park.
“It is just common sense. The land never should have been sold,” said Ward 6 Councilor Derek Dobosz, the resolution’s sponsor, who represents the neighborhood where the land is located. “I wanted to change the city’s intention, instead of developing it to put it towards conservation.”
The issue began in March 2008 when Westover Metropolitan Development Corp. started negotiating with the city to buy a 57-acre parcel of land that runs from the Massachusetts Turnpike to Westover Metropolitan Airport. The land abuts Chicopee State Park on one side and the backyards of Slate Road residents on the other.
Two years earlier, an inventory of all city-owned property identified the 57 acres as developable. A home builder looked at it for residential subdivision, and it was considered as a potential site for a casino. State Rep. Joseph F. Wagner then recommended it be sold to Westover Development, said Michael D. Bissonnette, mayor from 2006-13.
“The mayor wanted to develop the property and we both recognized there were many significant impediments,” said Wagner. “It is fragmented and access and egress were difficult.”
It made sense to sell the property to development experts, and going with Westover Development still gave the city some control, Wagner said.
The City Council endorsed the plan, and Bissonnette worked out a deal that would allow Westover Development to buy the acreage and join it with about 30 acres it already owned and several other smaller properties it was negotiating to buy from private owners. The plan was to create a 110-acre industrial park to be named Airpark South.
In December 2008, the City Council unanimously approved selling the land for $1.45 million. Six months later, at an official check-passing ceremony, Westover Development officials said the industrial park would bring more than 1,000 jobs and an estimated $1 million in annual tax revenue.
Officials called it a rare opportunity to have such a large tract of land to develop so close to the Mass Pike and Interstate 291. At the time of the sale, then-City Council President William Zaskey said, “I think it’s a great advantage to the city to be able to develop a parcel of land that has been unused for years. … It’s a good opportunity for the city to bring in more taxes.”
Today, neighbors argue the land has been well used for decades as an off-the-books extension of Chicopee Memorial Park. High school cross country teams train there often, mountain bike clubs meet there weekly and hikers trek through there regularly.
“We are looking to get the word out. There are so many people that walk through here who are not residents of the neighborhood,” said Mary Hayner, a Slate Road resident. “This isn’t a neighborhood issue. This is a citywide issue, and we want to make sure the entire city is aware of the history of the property and (that) it has been used as open space since at least 1969.”
Residents opposed to the development have formed the Slate Conservation Area Alliance, created a website and Facebook page, and gathered more than 800 signatures on a petition. They have also printed T-shirts with the outline of the property.
In their months of research, they found several intriguing references. One, they say, shows the land may have been preserved by the Board of Aldermen in 1969 and never should have been sold. Official records showing more information about the vote were not found, however, and extensive searches may be needed to determine if they exist at all.
In 2008, there was little to no opposition to the sale and no mention that the property was conservation land. Michael Bolton, president of Westover Metropolitan Development Corp., asks why this is happening now, after the company has spent thousands of dollars in grant funds on planning and other work to develop the property.
“I don’t know. I was in middle school at the time of the sale,” said Dobosz, who is now working with the neighbors to protect the land.
Residents claim they were not told about the sale at the time. However, Bissonnette and Allan W. Blair, retired president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, who headed up the process to purchase the property, held at least two press conferences about the project. The land sale was the subject of multiple newspaper articles in 2008 and 2009. Further articles about the proposed Airpark South were published in The Republican from time to time.
Westover Development was created in 1974 to help Chicopee, Ludlow and Granby develop about 2,500 acres of surplus property when Westover Air Reserve Base downsized. Over 40 years the corporation attracted about 50 businesses to the three communities, and it also manages the Westover Metropolitan Airport, the civilian airport.
Typically Westover Development acquires property, builds infrastructure including roads and utilities, and then markets the lots as shovel-ready parcels. Communities benefit by the jobs created and tax money earned.
The corporation purchased 0 Fuller Road with Federal Aviation Administration mitigation money, funds granted to airports to prevent homes from being built near airplane runways.
A fair market appraisal was conducted and set the price at $1,45 million, which was required under the FAA grant. The money was deposited into a city fund and later used to purchase the St. Patrick’s School when it closed, Bissonnette said.
Westover Development spent years planning Airpark South, seeking funding for planning and environmental studies and negotiating the purchase of other parcels.
It wasn’t until the corporation sought to change the parcel’s zoning classification late last year that neighbors realized the area may not be protected.
Neighbors were notified by mail of meetings about the zone change. They have asked repeatedly why they did not receive similar notifications when the land purchase took place 12 years earlier.
The city requires abutters within 300 feet of the property line to be notified of zone change requests. There is no similar notification requirement for the sale of land.
Residents lobbied the Planning Board to reject the zone change, arguing having huge industrial buildings in their backyards would impact their quality of life and reduce their property values. They talked about the bears, bobcats and bald eagles seen on the land.
The Planning Board voted 5-0 in January to recommend the zone change. But the City Council’s Zoning Subcommittee agreed with the neighbors and recommended against it.
In early March, the full council voted 12-0 to reject the zone change, with one member abstaining. The council also took the unusual step of refusing Westover Development’s request to withdraw its petition before the vote.
That vote bars the corporation from seeking a similar zone change for two years. If it had been allowed to withdraw the plan, the agency could have resubmitted it at any time.
“We are now looking at all our options,” said Bolton, who dismissed rumors that Westover Development may clear-cut the land.
Bolton argued Westover Development received plenty of support for the project until public opinion shifted. In 2018 it received a $255,200 state site readiness program grant to help plan Airpark South, and a year later it received a second $850,000 state grant to acquire four adjacent parcels. Both grants were administered by MassDevelopment.
But there were earlier indications the City Council’s support for the project was waning. In 2015, then-Mayor Richard J. Kos proposed allocating $425,000 from the city’s stabilization account to help Westover Development prepare the land for businesses, but the proposal failed to get the necessary nine votes from the council. The Ward 6 councilor at the time said he would prefer that the land be left undeveloped.
Bolton disputes that the property was ever officially set aside as conservation land. When residents brought up the fact that people have used the property for years for hiking and mountain biking, he said they were doing it without the corporation’s authorization.
In the weeks after the City Council rejected the zone change, no trespassing signs were installed at entrances to the property on Slate Road.
“We did a thorough title search, and we took out title insurance when we bought the land,” Bolton said. “It was all filed at the (Hampden County) registry of deeds, and there was nothing different about it.”
Pouliot confirmed city lawyers also conducted a thorough title search before selling the land and found no conservation restrictions.
“This is what we are up against,” said Hayner, one of the Slate Road residents. “Nothing was formally written down. Nothing was formally protected, and the intent is clear from the newspaper articles at the time. But how do you get current administration to honor the wishes of the past and the promises made?”
Articles in The Republican’s archives show there was an effort decades ago to put 42 acres of land, described as having the same basic boundaries as the property sold to Westover Development, into some type of conservation.
A Springfield Union article dated April 14, 1969, outlines the Conservation Commission’s plan to ask then-Mayor Richard Demers to turn the property into an outdoor educational center.
“The area would be similar to the area established by Mayor Demers adjacent to the state boat landing on the Connecticut River, and which is kept in its natural state for nature lovers,” the article said.
The land was called the “Buena Vista Preserve” in the articles. Deed records show at least part of the 42 acres was originally called the “Buena Vista Lot” and was acquired by the city in 1932 for nonpayment of taxes.
A second article published in December 1969 says the Conservation Commission’s first project for the land was to create a nature trail. Boy Scouts volunteered to help design the trail and erect signs identifying species of trees and plants.
Commission Chairman Leslie A. Fournier “outlined plans in the wake of the aldermanic approval of Mayor Demers’ recommendation to transfer jurisdiction of the land to the commission,” the article said.
There was no full article found about the Board of Alderman vote, but a paragraph in a Holyoke Transcript-Telegram story dated Nov. 20, 1969, says: “The Board adopted a resolution to allow the Conservation Commission to use the 42-Buena Vista property for a nature center.”
Demers took out a political advertisement in the Springfield Daily News on Oct. 4, 1969, saying: “No one enjoys paying taxes but We Do Enjoy the saving of natural areas. The Chicopee Meadows and Slate Road ‘green spots’ insure no matter how much concrete is poured our city will always have areas as nature intended.”
The neighbors were alerted to the 1960s conservation efforts by Tom Fournier, whose father was on the commission when he was a young child. His father died about a year ago, and Fournier said he has been trying to track down other former members to no avail.
Neighbors hired a lawyer, but many residents have been doing their own research, and funnel their findings to Glen Buckley, who lives with Hayner.
“(The lawyer) is mostly for fact-finding,” Hayner said. “We are trying to find out was it ever conserved and they are doing an actual title search for us and see where it went sideways.”
No one is certain when the Conservation Commission stopped being involved in the land. A 1983 news article mentions it continued to control the property. In recent years maintenance of the land has been left to people who use it, like the bike clubs who often are seen leaving with trash they find on the trails.
“I think it was left to the citizens. I know groups have gone in and cleaned up and we have reported illegal dumping,” Hayner said.
The neighbors aren’t the only ones trying to figure out the history of the property.
Pouliot has found handwritten Conservation Commission meeting minutes that date to 1960, but going through them is time-consuming. He is also looking for meeting minutes for the Board of Aldermen.
Meanwhile, the City Council is pursuing another avenue to preserve the land, beginning with the effort to buy back the land. In support of Dobosz’s resolution, Councilor Joel McAuliffe said it is proper to try to fix past mistakes, but it won’t be easy.
“Whatever your position is on (Westover Development) they are an injured party in the sense that they bought this land with expectations and arrangements made with the city that the city now has gone back on,” McAuliffe said. “Don’t expect them to offer it to us for a fair price or even a price that we would welcome.”
The city could take the land by eminent domain, but that would involve significant litigation, McAuliffe said. He notes he was one of the few people to speak against the proposal back in 2008, when he was a teenager.
If the city purchased the property back, Westover Development would be required to return to the FAA the $1.45 million used to buy the land. The corporation is also limited by guidelines that call for the land to serve as a noise buffer to the runway, said Arlene Salac, FAA spokeswoman.
At his press conference, Vieau did not state a position about the property, saying his goal was just to clear up “misconceptions, false information and conjecture.”
For example, he said the city has no nondisclosure agreements with potential developers. He also said the $30 million the city is receiving from the American Rescue Plan cannot be used to purchase the land.
“Right now Westover Metropolitan Development Corp. does not have the property up for sale so I don’t think it is an option at this particular time to say the city is looking to purchase property that is not for sale,” Vieau said.
When asked what he would like to do with the land, Vieau was not specific: “The mayor’s office really would like to see something happen that is in the best interest of the city of Chicopee.”
This week, Vieau said he has talked to trustees of Westover Development and said a compromise may be possible. It might allow some of the land set aside for Airpark South — especially property the corporation owns outside of the acreage it purchased from the city — and some of it to be preserved. He said a land swap involving the property is off the table for now.
Bolton did not return calls for further comment.
Vieau also refuted months-old rumors that Amazon.com was interested in developing some of the property, saying a Facebook post was the only source he’d seen for that information.
The mayor confirmed a bottling company and a last-mile delivery company made basic inquiries with the city about possible development, neither of which was tied to a particular parcel, and at least one of which was several years ago.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Mark and Eva Dion were riding their bikes through the Slate Road area and were saddened to learn the property might be developed. They said their daughter frequently runs on the trails and they ride their bikes there often.
“We have a lot of industrial land in Chicopee but not a lot of wilderness,” Mark Dion said.
“I hope it doesn’t happen,” Eva Dion added.