American Legion in Hadley voices concern about senior center project

  • The Hadley Senior Community Center, left, and Goodwin Memorial Library. The American Legion Post 271, not pictured, is located to the left of the senior center. Some Planning Board and legion members are concerned about losing an overflow parking lot to make way for construction of a new senior center. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2018

HADLEY — Some Planning Board members and veterans who use the American Legion Post 271 on Route 9 are concerned with plans to build a new senior center on a parking lot next door, calling the idea stupid and dangerous.

The American Legion has for decades used the gravel area next to its building on Route 9 as overflow parking for regular use by veterans and by people who attend public and private functions.

But with plans to construct a dedicated senior center that will use the town-owned land, concerns are being raised about how its loss might impact the American Legion, even if members and visitors are welcome to use a parking lot that would be built next to the new building.

“What they’re going to do is basically put that legion out of business,” Planning Board member John Mieczkowski said at the Jan. 6 Planning Board meeting, where preliminary site plans for the senior center project were presented.

Though on municipal land, the parking area has been part of the American Legion since the 1950s, and Mieczkowski called it “plain stupidity” to build the senior center on it.

“I think it’s a big joke,” Mieczkowski said. “You’re doing a big injustice to the American Legion, which has been there a long time.”

Senior Center Director Suzanne Travisano told the Planning Board that officials have had extensive conversation with legion officials and have offered to put a lighted, paved walking path connecting the legion to the senior center parking lot.

Travisano said as the design development phase proceeds, future impacts will be better understood.

“This is an exercise in community development and a process that needs to happen through respectful communication and due diligence on the parts of all concerned,” Travisano said.

Twice residents have approved the senior center project, at both Town Meetings and ballot votes, including in August and November, when an additional $1.8 million was added to allow the $7.1 million, 12,050-square-foot building to proceed.

The project is scheduled to break ground later this year and be open by fall 2019. This would allow a new library, also approved by voters and supported by a $3.9 million grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, to be built on the senior center’s current home, the former Hooker School.

Select Board Chairwoman Molly Keegan, who was at the Planning Board meeting, said Wednesday that she has reached out to American Legion officials. Within the next two weeks, she expects its representatives to be present for dialogue at a joint building committee meeting.

“This is a pressing issue,” Keegan said. “We don’t want people at the legion expressing concern and not having any action taking place in a reasonable amount of time.”

But Keegan said town leaders also have to honor the wishes of taxpayers and proceed in good faith on getting the projects built. She observes that she has never heard anyone say they want to harm the legion.

“We need to take everyone’s needs into consideration,” Keegan said.

Criticism mounts

Mieczkowski wasn’t alone in his criticism of the building plans.

Stanley Fil, a World War II veteran, said the senior center process was done in secret, arguing that forums to inform the legion about changes to its site haven’t been held.

Meli Morash, who runs a dance program at the legion hall, said removing the parking could create a dangerous situation for her clients, including senior citizens, if they have to park off-site.

“I urge you take that into consideration for us,” Morash said.

Planning Board Chairman James Maksimoski said to make legion members and visitors walk a greater distance, when many themselves are senior citizens, seems a strange decision.

Ultimately, allowing or prohibiting use of the overflow lot for the senior center project is up to the Select Board, said Planning Board Clerk William Dwyer.

“This is not our call to make to say whether that building can be put there,” Dwyer said.

What is in the board’s purview is whether there is enough land to accommodate the two new buildings, a shared parking lot and green space.

Maksimoski said municipal projects are exempt from some zoning, but not regulations, including providing 2 square feet of parking for every 1 square foot of building.

“I don’t have the right answer, but the library and senior center definitely have to come together and come in with one cohesive plan,” Maksimoski said.

Dwyer said it will be a problem if there is insufficient space for the parking needs.

“We seem to be getting into an untenable situation if this parcel will not support both buildings,” Dwyer said.

Jane Nevinsmith, chairwoman of the senior center building committee, said the land is still being investigated.

“We are having our site engineers look at the combined plan to see if the parking needs can be met,” Nevinsmith said.

Jo-Ann Konieczny, president of the library trustees, said it is still early in the process and she is not worried that the plans have hit a stumbling block.

Once an owner’s project manager and architect are hired, the library can begin working more closely with the senior center’s team to flesh out the plans.

“In my mind, this is just working through the process,” Konieczny said.

Travisano said she, too, is confident that the matter can be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone.

“We look forward to coordinating with the library’s team of professionals, and have not left the American Legion’s concerns unheard,” Travisano said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com