NORTH ADAMS -- Four deteriorating staircases on the west side of the former Conte School property, including two in Colegrove Park, can be removed with state School Building Authority funds, according to an opinion issued by City Solicitor John DeRosa on Thursday.
In the opinion, DeRosa states that "because the [Conte School renovation] project envisions no changes to Colegrove Park that are in any way consistent with its ongoing use as a public park, then project funds may be used for improvements and changes to the parcel."
Long-standing use of Colegrove Park as the entrance to the school, whether it was as Drury High School or as Silvio O. Conte Middle School, also makes the use of MSBA funds for the removal of the stairs appropriate, the opinion states.
"If the project's architects wish to include the park parcel as part of the project, then they are free to do so, and to use project funds to make improvements to the park parcel, so long as those improvements are consistent wit [sic] the city's long-standing use of the parcel as a park and part of the grounds of Conte School," DeRosa wrote.
The opinion was issued in response to a request from the city's Historical Commission, which questioned whether or not it was appropriate to use MSBA funds for the removal of the stairs from Colegrove Park after site plans for the renovation project had changed. The Historical Commission's question arose after it was asked to give its approval to the current site plans, which are different from the plans it approved in Sept. 2012.
Originally, the school renovation plans called for a playground to be located on a portion of the park and for only two of the staircases to be removed. Those plans were abandoned in June, after it was determined the playground and changes to the hillside would be cost-prohibitive and that faculty members weren't interested in using the space. The issue is before the Historical Commission again at its meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 21, at noon, in the second floor conference room at City Hall.
DeRosa's opinion also concludes that because the plans do not fundamentally change the park's intended use, that Article 97 of the state Constitution, requiring a two-thirds vote of the state Legislature for changes to be made to municipal or state property taken for a public park, is not triggered by the current renovation plans.
"Mere removal of the stairs may trigger review by the Historical Commission, but because the park parcel will remain unchanged, then the use of the park remains consistent with the uses for the city acquired the parcel, which was a public park," he wrote. "Indeed, if the project included the installation of a playground, a fountain or a gazebo on the park parcel, those improvements would be uses consistent with parkland uses Should the aspects of the project change, however, such as granting easements in the parcel, transferring ownership, or constructing school buildings on the park parcel, then the city would have to revisit the issue on whether an Article 97 vote would be required."
Prior to becoming a park, the land now known as Colegrove Park was known as the North Church Street Cemetery. The land was donated to the First Baptist Church by Jeremiah Colegrove's wife, Lydia, in 1865 and remained a cemetery until the state Legislature authorized its transfer to the city in 1900. In December 1902, the deacons of the First Baptist Church officially signed over the cemetery to the city, but the city did not relocate those interred at it until 1904, when it was then converted into Colegrove Park.
In 1915, the city began plans for the renovation of Colegrove Park, including the staircases leading up to the hillside, in tandem with the construction of a new Drury High School, presently known as the Conte School.
A complete version of DeRosa's opinion can be found at http://bit.ly/Colegrove.