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Springfield ballpark ruling could affect Fenway proposal, critics welcome judge's decision against city's land-takings

By Meg Vaillancourt, Globe Staff, 03/01/00

In a decision that could affect the Boston Red Sox push for a new Fenway Park, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge yesterday ruled against public land-takings for a ballpark proposed in Springfield.

In her 89-page decision, Hamden Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney excoriated Springfield Mayor Michael J. Albano for improperly using the city's eminent domain powers to take privately owned land to build a minor league ballpark.

Specifically, the judge ruled that Springfield's attempt to take a downtown shopping mall and machine shop to create a ballpark did not serve a public purpose.

In Boston, critics of the Red Sox' proposed $600 million ballpark said they were encouraged by the Springfield ruling, noting that it was grass-roots opponents who had successfully mounted the legal challenge.

"It appears there was some question about what constitutes a public purpose for land-takings," said Peter Catalano of the Fenway Action Coalition, a leading opponent of the ballpark proposal.

"That's likely to complicate life for the Red Sox and their political pals, who are trying to stick the costs of the stadium on to taxpayers or strong-arm local property holders in the Fenway," added Catalano.

But Red Sox attorneys argued yesterday that far from hurting the team, the Springfield ruling actually helped.

"What the judge was objecting to was the process used in Springfield," said Owen Todd, a former Superior Court judge and an expert on eminent domain who is now a consultant to Bingham Dana, the Red Sox' law firm.

"This ruling actually reaffirms that ballparks can be a public purpose when it comes to land-takings. But there has to be a clear public process, and that just wasn't the case in Springfield," Todd said.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino said city officials were withholding comment until they had a chance to read Sweeney's ruling.

While Menino has not specified how much the city is willing to contribute toward the project, up until now it's been widely assumed that Boston would assist the Red Sox by taking the proposed 14-acre site adjacent to Fenway Park by eminent domain.

Most observers say it's highly unlikely the team would be able to afford to acquire the land, which developers estimate could cost $100 million. As he did with the New England Patriots, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran has ruled out using state funds to purchase the ballpark site.

Nearly a year after they unveiled their ballpark proposal, the Red Sox are facing increasing skepticism about public financing of the project. The state is now facing a massive budget shortfall from Big Dig cost overruns and is under pressure to help bail out Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. At the same time, interest rates have risen several times.

Meanwhile, opponents have been gaining momentum. Tomorrow, MassPIRG, a statewide consumer and environmental group, is expected to release a detailed report rebuking claims that the project will be an economic boon for the city and the state.

Even if the team is successful in obtaining public funds, it now appears the timetable for opening the new ballpark may have slipped until 2005.

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