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Appeals Court of Massachusetts.

Virginia B. SMITH & others 1 v. CITY OF WESTFIELD & others.2


Decided: September 01, 2021

By the Court (Blake, Shin & Walsh, JJ.3)


The plaintiffs, at least ten of whom are residents of the city of Westfield (city), appeal from a Superior Court judge's allowance of the city's motion for summary judgment, the denial of their cross motion for summary judgment, and the denial of their motion for reconsideration. Concluding that the plaintiffs’ claims are moot, and therefore were properly dismissed, we affirm.

Background. At the center of this case is the city's decision to build a school in the area of the Cross Street playground (playground). In 2017 the Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision that effectively prevented the development of the playground as a school, and thereafter, the city abandoned its plans. See Smith v. Westfield, 478 Mass. 49, 50, 64 (2017) (holding that Cross Street playground parcel is protected by art. 97 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution and cannot be used for non-recreational purposes without two-thirds roll call vote of each branch of Legislature). In this case, the plaintiffs challenged the transfer of another parcel, Ponders Hollow, to the city's department of parks and recreation. They sought to prevent the city from substituting Ponders Hollow for the playground under a Federal scheme protecting recreation land. In so doing, the plaintiffs contend that they continue to be aggrieved by the city's failure to follow the proper procedures to dedicate Ponders Hollow as a park.

Some of the plaintiffs live near the playground, which has been used as such for more than sixty years. Smith, 478 Mass. at 51. It was designated as permanently protected outdoor recreation space under Federal law since 1979, the year the city received Federal funds to renovate the playground. Id. at 51-52. See 16 U.S.C. § 460l (1976). The playground's protected status was an obstacle to redevelopment. See Smith, supra at 52-53. To overcome that obstacle, the city sought permission from the Federal government to substitute Ponders Hollow for the playground, and proposed to turn Ponders Hollow into a public park.

The National Park Service approved this proposed substitution converting “1.35 +/- acres of Cross Street Playground to non-outdoor recreational use” and replacing the land “with 3.8+/- acres of land at 0 Ponders Hollow Road.” The city council voted to transfer Ponders Hollow from the fire department to the department of parks and recreation.

In 2015, the plaintiffs filed a complaint claiming that the transfer of Ponders Hollow violated § 13-27, of Westfield's Code of Ordinances, which requires a report and recommendation from the planning board before the city council takes any “final action ․ with reference to ․ the location or erection of any ․ new public ․ park.” A purpose of the complaint was to prevent the city from using Ponders Hollow as a substituted site for the playground. To that end, the plaintiffs’ complaint sought a declaration that the transfer of Ponders Hollow to the department of parks and recreation was invalid (counts I, III, & IV); an order requiring the city to comply with § 13-27, and submit the issue to the planning board (counts III and IV); and an order restraining the city from incurring any obligations or expending any funds to build a school on the playground (count II).

While this matter was pending in the Superior Court, the plaintiffs, in a separate action, obtained a permanent injunction preventing the city from building a school on the playground. See Smith, 478 Mass at 64. Thereafter, the city abandoned its plan to build a school on the playground. In 2018, the city requested that the National Park Service release Ponders Hollow from the Federal recreational use restriction. The National Park Service did so on May 30, 2019.

Discussion. On appeal, the plaintiffs claim that the transfer of Ponders Hollow to the department of parks and recreation is void. Contrarily, the plaintiffs argue that art. 97 protection attached to Ponders Hollow when it was transferred. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the plaintiffs no longer have a personal stake in the outcome of this litigation, rendering it moot.

“It is the general rule that courts decide only actual controversies and that normally we do not decide moot cases” (quotations and citation omitted). Harmon v. Commissioner of Correction, 487 Mass. 470, 475 (2021). “Litigation ordinarily is considered moot when the party claiming to be aggrieved ceases to have a personal stake in its outcome.” Styller v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Lynnfield, 487 Mass. 588, 595 (2021), quoting Taylor v. Board of Appeals of Lexington, 451 Mass. 270, 274 (2008). Here, as the city has abandoned its plan to build a school on the playground, there is no longer an “actual controversy” that the court can redress. Branch v. Commonwealth Employment Relations Bd., 481 Mass. 810, 816, 818 (2019). And the Smith decision makes it unlikely that the city will revive the school project. Cf. Styller, 487 Mass. at 595 (discussing courts’ discretion to decide moot cases involving “issue[s] of public importance”); Aquacultural Research Corp. v. Austin, 88 Mass. App. Ct. 631, 634 (2015) (same).

The plaintiffs’ desire to have a court adjudicate the questions whether the city violated § 13-27 by transferring Ponders Hollow and whether Ponders Hollow is protected under art. 97 does not change this result. Whatever negative impact the transfer of Ponders Hollow might have on residents of the city would flow from the type of use to which it would be put post transfer. It is undisputed that the city has no current plans as to what should be done with Ponders Hollow, and the complaint contains no allegations on that issue. Rather, the complaint's sole allegation of concrete harm concerns the city's (now abandoned) plans to build a school on the playground while using Ponders Hollow as a replacement site for recreational use. No other actual controversy is specifically set out in the complaint, as is required to obtain declaratory relief, see G. L. c. 231A, § 1, and the plaintiffs fail to explain why they continue to have a personal stake in the validity of the transfer. See Taylor, 451 Mass. at 274 (plaintiffs had no personal stake in outcome of litigation where deciding issues presented “would have no practical effect on [their] interests”); Attorney Gen. v. Commissioner of Ins., 442 Mass. 793, 810 (2004) (Attorney General did not have personal stake in outcome of issue where he could not allege harm to consumers whom he represents). We “will not adjudicate a dispute merely because a party is interested in what answer the courts will give.” Maroney v. Planning Bd. of Haverhill, 97 Mass. App. Ct. 678, 683 (2020). We therefore conclude that the plaintiffs’ claims are moot and that they were properly dismissed.4

Judgment affirmed.


4.   In light of our disposition, we need not reach the plaintiffs’ other arguments.

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