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Appeals Court of Massachusetts.

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

No. 15–P–773.

Decided: August 25, 2016

Present: Green, Trainor, & Milkey, JJ. Thomas A. Kenefick, III (Mary Patryn with him) for the plaintiffs. Anthony I. Wilson (John T. Liebel with him) for the defendants.

The plaintiffs, Virginia B. Smith and other Westfield residents (collectively, residents), appeal from a judgment for the defendants, the city of Westfield and others (collectively, Westfield), which vacated a preliminary injunction that, in effect, prohibited a school construction project at the John A. Sullivan Memorial Playground (playground).3 The residents challenge the judgment for two reasons. First, they argue that the playground was sufficiently dedicated to invoke the protection of art. 97 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, notwithstanding the fact that no documents were ever recorded that dedicated the land for art. 97 purposes.4 Second, the residents contend that the judge erred in concluding that a Statewide comprehensive outdoor recreation plan (SCORP) contradicts Mahajan v. Department of Envtl. Protection, 464 Mass. 604, 984 N.E.2d 821 (2013). We affirm, as we conclude that the playground has not been designated for an art. 97 purpose in a manner sufficient to invoke its protection.

Background. This matter came before a Superior Court judge on cross motions for judgment based on an agreed statement of facts. We summarize those facts, reserving some facts for later discussion. On November 13, 1939, Westfield took title to the land in question for the purpose of satisfying a tax debt pursuant to G.L. (Ter. Ed.) c. 60, §§ 53 and 54. In 1957, Westfield passed an ordinance recognizing the land as a playground and naming it the John A. Sullivan Memorial Playground. In 1979, the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) awarded Westfield a grant that, in part, was used to upgrade the playground. A SCORP was required for Westfield to be eligible for that grant. See 16 U.S.C. § 460l–8(d) (1976).5 The SCORP, which the residents assert applies to this matter, states: “Land acquired or developed with [LWCF] funds become protected under ․ [art. 97].” See Massachusetts Outdoors 2006: Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs 4, [–4EKN] (2006 SCORP).6 In 2010, Westfield endorsed an open space and recreation plan that designated the playground as “open space.” In August, 2011, the playground was determined to be surplus property, and the city council voted to have it transferred to the school department in order to construct an elementary school. In the hearing on the parties' cross motions, the residents conceded that no document was ever recorded in the registry of deeds designating the playground as land devoted to the “conservation, development and utilization of the agricultural, mineral, forest, water, air, and other natural resources.” Art. 97 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution.

Discussion. 1. Article 97 protection. The residents maintain that the playground is subject to art. 97 protection and that Westfield acted beyond its authority when it approved and permitted construction of a school building at the playground without obtaining a two-thirds vote of the General Court as required by art. 97.7 “The critical question to be answered is not whether the use of the land incidentally serves purposes consistent with art. 97, or whether the land displays some attributes of art. 97 land, but whether the land was taken for those purposes [emphasis in original], or subsequent to the taking was designated for those purposes [emphasis supplied] in a manner sufficient to invoke the protection of art. 97.” Mahajan v. Department of Envtl. Protection, 464 Mass. at 615, 984 N.E.2d 821. Article 97 protection also may arise where, following the taking for purposes other than art. 97, the land is specifically designated for art. 97 purposes by deed or other recorded restriction. See Selectmen of Hanson v. Lindsay, 444 Mass. 502, 508–509, 829 N.E.2d 1105 (2005). See also Toro v. Mayor of Revere, 9 Mass.App.Ct. 871, 872, 401 N.E.2d 853 (1980) (applicability of art. 97 depended on whether the land had been conveyed “to the conservation commission ․ to maintain and preserve it for the use of the public for conservation purposes”). We agree with the motion judge's finding that Westfield did not specifically designate, in a manner sufficient to invoke the protection of art. 97, i.e., by deed or other recorded restriction on the land, the playground for art. 97 purposes and that the playground was not taken for those purposes. Westfield's subsequent actions of passing an ordinance naming the playground and endorsing the open space and recreation plan in 2010 are insufficient to subject the playground to art. 97 protection. Compare Selectmen of Hanson v. Lindsay, supra at 508–509, 829 N.E.2d 1105; Mahajan v. Department of Envtl. Protection, supra at 615–616, 984 N.E.2d 821.

2. 2006 SCORP. The residents contend that because the 2006 SCORP considers land rehabilitated with LWCF grants as being under the protection of art. 97,8 the judge erred in determining that the acceptance of the LWCF grant did not subject the property to art. 97 protection. As the judge correctly stated, “[a] federal or state agency is not free to promulgate regulations which conflict with statutes passed by the state legislature or with the common law enunciated by the Supreme Judicial Court. See Purity Supreme, Inc. v. Attorney Gen [.], 380 Mass. 762, 774–775, 407 N.E.2d 297 (1980).” Moreover, the Supreme Judicial Court, as final arbiter of the Massachusetts Constitution, has interpreted art. 97 and defined its requirements. A Federal or State agency's regulations cannot conflict with the Supreme Judicial Court's interpretation of the Massachusetts Constitution. See Planned Parenthood League of Mass., Inc. v. Attorney Gen., 424 Mass. 586, 589–590, 677 N.E.2d 101 (1997). Accordingly, the 2006 SCORP cannot infringe upon the formalities for constitutional protection, as construed by the Supreme Judicial Court, by deeming the acceptance of an LWCF grant as creating art. 97 protection.

3. Prior public use doctrine. The residents argue that the prior public use doctrine requires the playground to be subject to art. 97 protection. We are not persuaded. “The prior public use doctrine holds that public lands devoted to one public use cannot be diverted to another inconsistent public use without plain and explicit legislation authorizing the diversion.” Mahajan v. Department of Envtl. Protection, 464 Mass. at 616, 984 N.E.2d 821 (quotation omitted). This doctrine is only applicable to land that is in fact devoted to public use. Id. at 617, 984 N.E.2d 821. Thus, as noted by Mahajan, in Muir v. Leominster, 2 Mass.App.Ct. 587, 588–589, 591, 317 N.E.2d 212 (1974), we “held the prior public use doctrine inapplicable to the sale for commercial purposes of a parcel of land, where that parcel had been conveyed to a city as a gift with no limitation on its use but was in fact used for thirty years as a playground and for other recreational purposes ․ [and] there had been neither prior legislative authorization of a taking for a particular purpose nor a prior public or private grant restricted to a particular purpose.” Ibid. (citation and quotation omitted). Accordingly, the prior public use doctrine, insomuch as it was adopted in the art. 97 context by the Supreme Judicial Court in Mahajan, does not subject the playground to art. 97 protection because that land had been conveyed to the city with no limitation on its use, and there was neither a taking for an art. 97 purpose nor a prior public or private grant restricting the land to an art. 97 purpose. See id. at 616–617, 984 N.E.2d 821.

Judgment affirmed.

I agree with the majority that we are constrained to affirm the judgment here based on Selectmen of Hanson v. Lindsay, 444 Mass. 502, 829 N.E.2d 1105 (2005), and Mahajan v. Department of Envtl. Protection, 464 Mass. 604, 984 N.E.2d 821 (2013). I write separately in the hope that the Supreme Judicial Court someday will revisit such precedent.

As this and legions of other cases illustrate, public officials charged with building schools, roads, and other important public facilities often seek to locate such facilities in existing parkland or similar land.1 See, e.g., Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 404, 91 S.Ct. 814, 28 L.Ed.2d 136 (1971) (interpreting the Federal statutes limiting the construction of highways through parkland). In 1972, the people approved art. 97 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution as a means of protecting such lands from these development pressures. See Mahajan, supra at 611–612, 984 N.E.2d 821. The key language in art. 97 prohibits the sale or change in use of public parkland absent special legislative approval granted by a two-thirds roll call vote. Id. at 612, 984 N.E.2d 821, quoting from art. 97 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution. This prohibition applies to all public land “taken or acquired” for the purposes that art. 97 was designed to protect. Ibid. Thus, where the land at issue originally was acquired by the public entity for such purposes, then art. 97 applies by its express terms (regardless of whether the reason for the acquisition happens to be noted on the deed).

What has been less clear until recently is the extent to which art. 97's protections also apply to land that originally was not expressly acquired for such specific purposes, but that subsequently was dedicated to them. As illustrated by the current case, as well as by Hanson and Mahajan, this is an extremely common scenario. Indeed, some of the Commonwealth's most venerable public parkland, such as Boston Common, was originally acquired for other purposes. See Lowell v. Boston, 322 Mass. 709, 716, 729–730, 79 N.E.2d 713 (1948) (land comprising “nearly all” of Boston Common was originally acquired by the town of Boston in 1633 for general purposes, but over time “it is plain that the town has dedicated the Common and the Public Garden to the use of the public as a public park”).

As a matter of both logic and common sense, the bare fact that land has been put to an art. 97 use, without more, does not mean that the land was “taken or acquired” for such use. However, a different situation is presented once such land formally has been dedicated to an art. 97 use, especially where—as is often the case—management of the land has been assigned to the State or municipal agency that has oversight of parkland or similar land.2 Under that scenario, the land readily can be said to have become “acquired” for art. 97 purposes, and therefore subject to art. 97 protections.3

Notably, the Supreme Judicial Court has rejected the narrow view that land can be subject to art. 97 only if it was originally acquired for that purpose. Mahajan, supra at 615, 984 N.E.2d 821, citing Hanson, supra at 508–509, 829 N.E.2d 1105 (art. 97 applies not only to land originally taken or acquired for art. 97 purposes, but also to land that “subsequent to the taking [or acquisition] was designated for those purposes in a manner sufficient to invoke the protection of art. 97”). Nevertheless, the court severely has limited the circumstances under which land originally acquired for non-art. 97 purposes can become subject to art. 97's protections. Specifically, Hanson and Mahajan, taken together, appear to say that the only circumstance under which such land will be considered subject to art. 97 is where the restricted use has been recorded on the deed, e.g., through a conservation restriction. See Hanson, 444 Mass. at 506–509, 829 N.E.2d 1105; Mahajan, 464 Mass. at 615–616, 984 N.E.2d 821. In my view, the particular line the Supreme Judicial Court has drawn with respect to art. 97's applicability is untenable as a matter of both theory and practice.

A close reading of Hanson reveals that the reason the court stated that record notice is a prerequisite to art. 97's application in this context is the perceived need to protect people who might innocently purchase the land without knowing that it was subject to art. 97.4 As the court reasoned, “[t]o conclude that this [the dedication of the land for conservation purposes] could be accomplished solely by [a town meeting] vote, without recordation of any instrument, would eviscerate the purposes of our recording acts.” Hanson, supra at 509, 829 N.E.2d 1105.

Nothing in the language or purpose of art. 97 suggests that its application should turn on whether the underlying deed provides record notice that the land has been committed to an art. 97 use.5 Recording statutes obviously serve laudable goals, but they cannot trump a constitutional provision.6 If art. 97 can apply to public land that formally has been dedicated to an art. 97 purpose even though that land originally was not acquired for such a purpose, it makes little sense to prevent its application based on the theoretical concern that a future purchaser might not be aware that it applies.7 In fact, for the large subset of dedicated parkland that originally was acquired for non-art. 97 purposes, the rule established by Hanson and Mahajan threatens to reduce art. 97 to near irrelevancy: its protections would apply only where the public entity had already taken steps to ensure that those protections were not needed.8

It may be tempting to say that the rule established by Hanson and Mahajan is not problematic, because the public actors charged with protecting parkland have the power to initiate the additional recordation steps necessary to make such land subject to art. 97, e.g., by subjecting the land to a conservation restriction. In fact, the Supreme Judicial Court itself indicated that it was rejecting a broader reading of art. 97's application in part because of “the ability of a narrower interpretation to serve adequately the stated goals of art. 97.” Mahajan, supra at 615, 984 N.E.2d 821.9 But practical realities stand in the way of such optimistic thinking. Where, from all appearances, public land has been dedicated permanently to parkland or other art. 97 uses, the relevant public officials charged with protecting such land face little galvanizing pressure to go through the effort and expense of taking the additional steps suggested by Hanson or Mahajan. Indeed, because it often takes extensive research even to uncover the purpose for which existing parkland originally was “taken or acquired,” the relevant actors may have no idea that the additional steps are necessary for art. 97 to apply. Once the need to take such steps surfaces—that is, after the perceived need to use the land for a pressing competing use has arisen—it likely has become too late to implement such measures.

The overriding point of art. 97 is to insulate dedicated parkland from short-term political pressures. I fear that the effect of Hanson and Mahajan is to rob art. 97 of its intended force with regard to a great deal of dedicated parkland across the Commonwealth.