7/02/2006

Tuesday is D-day for Whalom Park eminent-domain proposal: Fitchburg (MA) Sentinel & Enterprise, 6/24/06

By Jordana Timerman

What will happen to the former Whalom Park [a long-shuttered former amusement park in Lunenberg MA]?

The question will be answered at Tuesday's special Town Meeting, when residents vote on Selectman Steven deBettencourt's proposal to take the site by eminent domain.

It is unclear what would happen at the site if residents approve the idea, which would also require devoting $5 million in public money to reimburse the land's owner, Global Property Development Corp. Global has an approved plan to build 240 condominiums on the site.

The general idea is to use the land for a development more to the town's liking, deBettencourt has said in the past month. He also mentioned incorporating affordable housing and public recreation space.

But deBettencourt said last week he will not present a specific proposal at the Town Meeting.

"It's not a Steve deBettencourt plan, it's a town consensus," he said. "It's whatever the town wants."

State law gives municipalities the right to take land for "any legitimate purpose," lawyer Christopher Petrini told the Sentinel & Enterprise last month.

But he could not rule out the possibility that other statutes limit the town's ability to take Whalom Park, said Petrini, a member of the Public Law Section Counsel of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

DeBettencourt said including affordable housing — helping the town meet the state's mandatory quota — and public space would constitute a public benefit, and justify taking the land.

A former Leominster resident gathering material for a book on Whalom Park has strongly advocated for another re-use concept.

Mark Chester would like to see the park turned into a public arts and cultural space that also includes recreational opportunities.

He points to the success of Glen Echo Park in Maryland. The park had been slated for development when residents turned it into a successful center for arts and education.

"Certainly there's a lot of sentiment involved, but there's also economics," Chester said. "I realize people aren't going to do things unless you give them an economic incentive to do it. You can't just preserve it because it was a place that made people happy. You need to preserve it for what it can do for people now and in the future."

Chester also envisioned using volunteers to lower costs on any project at the park site.

"When you have a project like this, there's an opportunity for businesses and individuals to donate in-kind materials and labor," he said. "I've gotten the e-mails from people who want to come and do what they can. There is a chance to really bring people together. It goes beyond Lunenburg."

The town might also find grant money to pursue a project at the former amusement park, Historical Commission Chair Rebecca Lantry said.

She is researching a federal Department of Transportation grant program that could provide $2 million.

All the town would have to do is make transportation-related improvements — such as creating a shelter for a nearby bus stop, she said.

Lantry has mixed feelings about taking the land by eminent domain.

"Do I like that we have to do it by eminent domain? No," she said. "Is it our last resort? Yes."

The town would have to pay a fair market price for taking the land, Petrini said.

Stephen Callahan of Global has said he will "absolutely" pursue litigation if the town moves to take the land.

"(The town will) force us into it," he said. "I would love to stop even the possibility that they could vote on this. It will become a much bigger issue if it ever gets voted on."

The article on the town meeting warrant calls for $5 million to be raised for the project.

Callahan said that amount is "several million" less than the developers' most recent appraisal of the land.

Callahan Finance LLC purchased the site from the Whalom Park Amusement Co. for $4,500,000 last week.

But the actual value of the land is far above its purchasing price due to additional costs faced by the developers, Callahan said.

The landowner can conduct his own appraisal if he is not satisfied with the reimbursement amount proposed by the town. If the parties cannot reach a settlement, the amount could eventually be settled by a court, Petrini said.

Callahan said he is puzzled by the eminent domain proposal.

"We've been very happy with the (approval) process, but don't really understand at the 11th hour this outrageous position," he said. "It just looks like someone's trying to stop the project."


Sentinel & Enterprise: http://www.sentinelandenterprise.com