Thursday, April 05, 2012

Westover concerns put proposed Chicopee sports complex on hold

CHICOPEE – A businessman who wants to build a private indoor and outdoor sports arena is hoping to overcome objections from the City Council and officials at Westover Air Reserve Base.

Donald Cameron III, of Amherst, is proposing turning the former Post Office warehouse at 123 First St. into a sports facility with seven indoor fields, a fitness center and a basketball court that would be available for rent. He wants to construct at least two more fields outside.

“All of the communities in Western Massachusetts do not have enough playing fields,” said Cameron, a painting contractor who has coached teams and whose father has a long history as a youth sports volunteer in Ludlow.

But officials at Westover Air Reserve base are objecting to the proposal, saying it is located in the Accident Potential Zone, which is in a runway flight path and has a statistically higher risk of accidents.

“We are very concerned that this proposed land use would be incompatible with aviation operations at Westover ... and that it would present an increased risk to public safety,” Col. Steven D. Vautrain, commander of Westover’s 439th Airlift Wing, said in a letter.

Some low-density uses are acceptable in the zone, but a sports arena has potential to draw large groups and would not be recommended, he said.

After a meeting that included testimony from Westover officials and Cameron, the City Council’s zoning committee voted 7-0 against granting Cameron the special permit he would need.

The full City Council has delayed voting on the permit.

“It is one of the hardest decisions I have had to make. I love soccer,” said City Councilor John L. Vieau, chairman of the zoning committee.

Vieau said that as a parent he understands fields are needed, but also realizes that Westover officials and area lawmakers are struggling to keep jobs at the base in light of proposed Pentagon cutbacks that could reduce the number of planes at Westover from 16 to eight in 2016.

Councilor Timothy S. McLellan said he liked the idea, but said it had to be balanced with the fact that Westover is the city’s largest employer, with 2,333 reservists and 838 civilian workers.

“Westover is our bread and butter,” he said.

Cameron said he wants to divide the about 50,000 square-foot building into six indoor areas that would include four small soccer fields to be used for younger children. The plan also calls for adding an inflatable building to hold three more fields.

With 40 acres surrounding the building, there is room for at least four fields, but he said he would start by making two with artificial turf.

The business would employee at least five people full time and as many as 30 part time. It would pay an estimated $100,000 in annual property taxes, Cameron said.

He recently hired Chicopee lawyer Thomas Murphy to assist him in winning the permits.

“I am looking into some fact-finding. I know Westover is at a delicate point in their negotiations,” Murphy said.

The zones allow recreational uses and have a formula of not allowing more than 25 people an acre. With the complex spread over 40 acres, that would allow 1,000 people at a time, more people than would use the facility, Murphy said.

“There won’t be anyone at night and no one there during school hours,” he said.

Murphy said he hopes to be able to discuss the issue more with Westover officials and the City Council and try to come up with an agreement that would allow the complex to be built safely.

“It would provide a good service and is on the edge of the (zone). There are a lot of reasons I think it is worthy to take another look,” he said.

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