A group of neighbors of Ward Park in Marlborough say the city’s plan to build a senior center there is illegal, and they’ve hired a lawyer to make their case.
The city plans to break ground on a 13,000-square-foot senior center at the park by the fall, but the neighbors say the parkland is protected by state law, and can’t be used for anything other than recreation without approval from the state.
“It makes no sense to take this land away from the children,” said Michael Nickolas, a member of the executive committee of the Ward Park Neighborhood Association.
City officials say their proposal is on solid legal footing, and say the new senior center project is part of a plan to improve the park.
“I think that’s the misconception, that we’re taking parkland away,” said Michael Berry, an aide to Mayor Arthur Vigeant. “One of the things the mayor’s been clear about is that this proposal is to enhance the park,” he said.
“I think it’s only going to enhance the green space and bring some attention and investment to a park that’s been neglected for some years now,” Berry added.
Paul Brodeur, a member of the neighborhood group, said the proposed center won’t be large enough to accommodate all of Marlborough’s older residents, and said it will be the “worst” senior center in the state. He charged that Vigeant is pursuing the building for political reasons.
“He needed a campaign issue, and he made the senior center the campaign issue,” Brodeur said.
City Councilor Matt Elder, who represents the Ward Park area, said building the senior center at the park will help push through other park improvements that might otherwise be delayed. He also said the park will provide benefits to seniors who come to the center.
“Now you’re talking about gardening, recreational things, walking around the track,” Elder said. “We’re going to have picnic tables set up. It’s a very unique opportunity that not many cities in the state have, to have their senior center overlook a beautifully redone park.”
Berry said the construction of the senior center won’t permanently displace playing fields or an ice skating rink at the park. However, he said, a “small sandlot” baseball field now on the building site “may or may not be re-created” at another location as part of the senior center project and improvements to Ward Park.
“A lot of fathers and sons come down there and throw the ball around,” Nickolas said of the baseball field. “It’s heavily used. It doesn’t require a permit. It’s one of the last places kids can just come down and play.”
In a letter dated March 30 and sent to city officials via certified mail, Dracut lawyer Julie McNeill stated that the land is protected by Article 97 of the amendments to the state constitution, which requires a two-thirds approval of both houses of the state Legislature to repurpose certain types of land.
Last August, City Solicitor Donald Rider issued an opinion stating that the land wasn’t protected by state law because it was initially acquired “for the purposes of a public playground or recreation center,” and not solely for park purposes.
‘That’s the misconception, that we’re taking parkland away. [The senior center is] only going to enhance the green space and bring some attention and investment to a park that’s been neglected for some years now.’
However, in her letter, McNeill stated that playgrounds have been found to be protected in previous cases, and that her clients “are prepared to avail themselves of all legal remedies in this matter.”
In a statement, Berry said the city had received the lawyer’s letter, but he did not directly address the legal arguments presented by McNeill and her clients.
“Over the past several months, we have worked with neighbors to answer their questions with the participation and involvement of various departments throughout the city,” he said.
“We will continue to review the concerns of the neighborhood with our Legal Department, and look forward to continuing this process to both construct a new senior center as well as make the needed investments we all agree are needed at Ward Park.”
Chrissy Manzi, a member of the neighborhood group, said that she and others will continue to press the issue.
“They’ve been discounting us, because they felt that they could,” Manzi said. “But obviously we’re not giving up.”Calvin Hennick can be reached at hennick.calvin@ gmail.com.