CHICOPEE – City Council will consider a proposal to start taxing land owned by the quasi-public Westover Metropolitan Development Corp. as part of an effort to protect land near Slate Road from industrial development.
City councilor Derek Dobosz is proposing that the company lose part of its tax-exempt status on the property it owns.
“They bought land that was never owned by Westover (Air Reserve Base) and that includes the Slate Conservation Area,” he said. “They buy them and keep them for years and years … and that’s a lot of missed income.”
Westover Metropolitan Development was established in 1974 to help Chicopee, Ludlow and Granby develop approximately 2,500 acres of surplus property when the military base was downsized. In 40 years, the company has attracted some fifty companies in the three communities. It also operates Westover Metropolitan Airport.
Typically, the company acquires properties, builds infrastructure including roads and utilities, and then markets the lots as plots ready to be shoveled. Communities benefit from the jobs created and the taxes gained from the sale of a property.
But Dobosz argued the company has gone beyond its original charter and is now purchasing additional land, including the 57 acres of Slate Road that borders Chicopee State Park.
The city sold the land to the company around 2008 as part of a plan to create a 110-acre industrial park. These plans did not materialize at the time. But earlier this year, the company sought to change the zoning of the plot from residential to industrial, sparking an outcry from neighbors who say the land should be preserved for recreation.
The city council effectively blocked the development of the property for two years by refusing the change of area. The accommodation cannot be built on the land since it was purchased with Federal Aviation Administration money designed to mitigate the negative impacts of airports by keeping the accommodation away from areas experiencing jet noise.
Since then, the neighbors, with the help of Dobosz and others, have been trying to save the land, which is widely used for walking and mountain biking. They found newspaper clippings and other documents showing that the property was once reserved for a nature reserve in 1969, leading many to argue that it should never have been sold.
Dobosz said the issue had prompted him to review and question Westover Metropolitan Development’s tax-exempt status, especially since the company is now offering to lease part of the property to businesses instead of sell it, leaving the city to receive less tax than it would if the property were sold and developed.
“It’s definitely worth investigating and I think Chicopee should get a fair deal,” he said.
While researching tax-exempt status, Dobosz said he discovered a lawsuit by the City of Ludlow against the company that dates back to the 1980s. It ended in a deal that continues to exempt land from taxes. developed owned by the company, but requires it to pay taxes retroactively once the land is developed and sold.
He argued that Chicopee should at a minimum receive the same deal, especially since it is a less wealthy community.
The city council voted 12-0 to support Dobosz’s proposal and to study it further in its finance and ordinances committees. Representatives of the company, members of its board of directors and representatives of the city, including appraisers, the treasurer and the legal department, will be invited to participate to provide their expertise.
Michael Bolton, president of Westover Metropolitan Development, did not respond to calls for comment.
While supporting the proposal, Councilor Joel McAuliffe questioned whether the plan was simply a distraction from the effort to prevent development of the property.
In early June, city council unanimously approved a plan to attempt to buy back the property, which it sold in 2008 for $ 1.45 million.
“We have well-meaning people who want to preserve the earth,” he said. “We have a lot of things that make us lose our focus. “
He reminded city council that the corporation has done a lot of good for the city by attracting corporate taxpayers and creating hundreds of jobs in the other industrial parks surrounding the base.
The city can either negotiate with the corporation to buy back the 57 acres or take them by eminent domain. The mayor is the only person who can initiate an earthquake.
So far, Mayor John Vieau has not made any efforts to buy back the property. But in the spring, he said it might be possible to come to a compromise with the company.
McAuliffe urged Dobosz to put a referendum question on the ballot asking voters if they wanted to preserve Slate Road property, saying it would force the city’s hand if approved.
Dobosz disagreed with the idea of putting a referendum on the ballot, saying he believed Westover metropolitan development officials could invest a large sum of money in a political campaign.
“I don’t want to drag the neighborhood through this,” he said.