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Tornado Recovery Project Sparks Eminent Domain Controversy

artists' rendering of Central Street in Springfield
City of Springfield
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A tornado recovery project in Springfield, Massachusetts has encountered some turbulence over possible property-takings by eminent domain. 

As part of a federally-funded $3 million project to improve a main thoroughfare in a low-income neighborhood hit by the 2011 tornado, the Springfield Department of Public Works is proposing to take ownership by eminent domain of two businesses and a house in a swap for the use of a narrow strip of parkland.

The plan calls for using a 100-foot long by 5-foot wide portion of Ruth Elizabeth Park in order to widen a section of Hickory Street and add sidewalks. Public Works Director Chris Cignoli said the changes will improve access to the Central Street corridor, where millions of dollars has been spent to remove blight and build new houses as part of the tornado recovery.

" We looked at a number of scenarios and this one ends up with the least amount of impact to property owners," said Cignoli.

The private properties proposed for taking by eminent domain are a duplex brick house, a towing company, and a poultry market.

" When you are dealing with the park you can not take parkland unless it is replaced. So we are loosing a little bit of parkland and actually replacing it with three properties," explained Cignoli.

A special meeting of the Springfield City Council is scheduled for tonight to vote on taking the parkland, but not the private property. 

Converting parkland to another use in Massachusetts requires the approval of the state legislature by a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. Cignoli said the city needs to get the land-taking at the park approved before financial offers are made to the private property-owners.

The taking of the parkland is not controversial according to several city councilors, but there is objection to the eminent domain action. 

City Councilor Bud Williams said he doesn’t recall there being any discussion about eminent domain during the public hearings five years ago on the tornado recovery master plan.

" I have no appetite to vote for eminent domain takings," said Williams. " They can modify this project, go back to the state, and do it the right way."

Cignoli and Parks Department Director Pat Sullivan met with the Maple High Six Corners Neighborhood Council recently to discuss the project and answer questions.

City Councilor Kateri Walsh said the council’s Maintenance and Development Committee, which she chairs, has recommended the full council vote to approve the parkland taking while deferring a vote on taking the private property.

" I do think the improvements presented for Ruth Elizabeth Park and Central Street will be a major improvement for the area and many people will benefit," said Walsh.

Walsh urged the city administration to hold more public meetings in the impacted neighborhood before asking the council to consider the use of eminent domain for the street project.   

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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