With a shortage of vacant land available for construction of new school buildings, municipalities are frequently pressured to convert parkland to school uses. More often than not, such conversions implicate Article 97.
Article 97 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution “provides that land and easements taken or acquired for conservation purposes shall not be used for other purposes or otherwise disposed of without the approval of a two-thirds roll call vote of each branch of the legislature.” Based on the foregoing, Massachusetts courts have consistently ruled that land is protected under Article 97 only when the land is specially designated for Article 97 purposes by a recorded instrument.
In a recent decision, Smith v. City of Westfield (pdf), the Supreme Judicial Court changed direction and held that there are circumstances where municipal parkland may be protected by Article 97 even though the land in question was not taken by eminent domain or acquired for conservation purposes and where there is no restriction recorded in the registry of deeds that limits its use to conservation or recreational purposes. In this case, the SJC found that land may be protected by Article 97, provided the land in question had been dedicated as a public park.
The Court further ruled that a municipality is deemed to have dedicated land as a public park where there is a “clear and unequivocal intent to dedicate the land permanently as a public park and where the public accepts such use by actually using the land as a public park.” Because the park in question was clearly dedicated by the City of Westfield as a public park, the Court held that the conversion of the park to school uses is subject to Article 97.