City Will Take Farmer's Land to Expand Pittsfield's Runway

PITTSFIELD, Mass. -- The expansion of Pittsfield Municipal Airport came one step closer to reality last night when the City Council unanimously approved the taking by eminent domain of 3 1/2 parcels of Watroba Farm on South Mountain Road.

The city plans to use the land, which is located directly behind the airport, both to expand the airport's runway by 1,000 feet and to create an aviation easement. The airport expansion project has been under discussion since 1998.

Before it officially approved the measure, the council approved a "purchase and release" agreement between farm owner Edwin F. Watroba of Dalton and the city of Pittsfield that officially laid out the terms of the land taking. City attorney Richard Dohoney said the document will protect the city from any liability.

The board went into executive session for 21 minutes to discuss the terms of the purchase and release agreement before voting to approve it in open session.

Under the terms of the agreement, Watroba will be able to continue to farm an 8.83-acre parcel that was originally scheduled to be added to the nearby Wild Acres Conservation Area.

"This sweetens the deal a little," said Ward 5 Councilor Jonathan N. Lothrop, whose jurisdiction includes the airport. "He has nine acres that he can farm for as long as he wants and as long as he lives."

Under the terms of a land swap that former Gov. Mitt Romney approved last August, the city was required to add 84 acres to the conservation area to replace 21 acres taken from Wild Acres to expand the airport.

The council also voted unanimously last night that no valid evidence was presented during the March 27 hearing that no properties other than Watroba's could be turned into parkland. The council was required to approve that matter before it could consider taking the property by eminent domain.

The city has offered Watroba $1.3 million for the farmland, which his aunt, Bertha Howard of Pittsfield, said has been owned by the family since 1919. Howard said the land has been farmed since 1859.

Following the vote, Lothrop, an early critic of the airport expansion project before he was elected to the council in 2003, said he was pleased that this portion of the process was finally over. "This is a day that I waited for a long time," Lothrop said. "It started seven or eight years ago. The original process was good for the airport and nobody else. There was no give-and-take."

He said after Ruberto and most of the current council were elected five years ago, the process became more civil.

"We reduced the taking of Mr. Watroba's land by 26 acres," Lothrop said.

The city had come to an agreement in principle with Watroba's attorney, Ira J. Kaplan of Great Barrington, two weeks ago, but had delayed action on the land taking until last night. "Ed Watroba loved his land," Kaplan said. "He will keep as much of his land as possible and will be able to farm it for future generations."

Airport Manager Mark Germanowski said a parcel of land still needs to be taken before the airport expansion can begin, but that the project would not have been able to proceed without Watroba's land.

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