Is a City Playground Protected Land? Massachusetts Supreme Court to Decide

Phelps Turner

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is deliberating a case with significant implications for playgrounds, parks, and other open space across the state. The decision before them is whether Westfield’s John A. Sullivan Memorial Playground, also known as the Cross Street Playground, is constitutionally protected land that cannot be converted to other purposes without a two-thirds vote of approval by the Legislature.

Open space like this playground is of vital importance to the health and well-being of our communities; and it is often lost forever once developed. That’s why CLF has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the group of Westfield residents seeking constitutional protection for their neighborhood playground.

Our Constitutional Right to a Clean, Healthy, and Protected Environment

The people of Massachusetts have a constitutional right to clean air and clean water; to the natural, scenic, historic, and aesthetic qualities of their environment; and to the conservation of the state’s natural resources. In 1972, these rights were officially added to the Massachusetts Constitution as Article 97.

Land that is subject to Article 97 cannot be converted to other purposes without a two-thirds vote of approval of the Legislature. The purpose of this requirement is to ensure that the long-term protection of land is not threatened by short-term political and/or economic pressures.

Open space in Massachusetts is one of our key natural resources and has significant public health, economic, and ecological value. Among other things, open space provides a place to recreate, drinking water protection, flood control and protection, and climate change mitigation. It also contributes to the Massachusetts economy in terms of jobs, business growth, taxes, tourism, and other revenue.

Is the Westfield Playground Actually Protected Under Article 97?

The City of Westfield has held and used the land in question as a playground for more than 50 years. Recently, the City decided to transfer the land to the school department for the construction of a school.

At the heart of this dispute is whether the City adequately designated the playground as Article 97 land. The City initially acquired the land for purposes other than Article 97, and later dedicated it to Article 97 purposes in three ways: by passing an ordinance recognizing the land as a playground; by accepting a federal grant requiring that land acquired with grant funds becomes protected under Article 97; and by endorsing a plan that identified the land as open space.

Previous decisions from the Supreme Judicial Court suggest, however, that land like the Westfield playground can be designated as Article 97 land only by a deed or some other recorded document. CLF and other friends-of-the-court, including the Attorney General, argue that, through the actions above, the City adequately dedicated the playground as Article 97 land and did not need to do so by a deed. As a result, the playground cannot be converted to a school without the two-thirds approval of the Legislature.

The Bigger Picture: Implications for Other Playgrounds, Parks, and Other Open Spaces

While the City of Westfield is at the center of the current dispute, other cities and towns in Massachusetts will be impacted by the Court’s decision. Indeed, cities and towns often own or control playgrounds, parks, or other spaces that serve public purposes.

The Court usually issues its decisions within three to four months of oral arguments, so we can expect a decision later this summer. CLF has a longstanding commitment to advocating for your constitutional rights as Massachusetts citizens to a clean, healthy, and protected environment. We will continue to monitor this case and any others that impact these rights.

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