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Tensions ease on Six Flags coaster project

The Republican -

Original Article »

March 30, 2008

AGAWAM - Tensions between city permitting officials and Six Flags New England - punctuated by a stop-work order issued on the amusement park's $7.5 million indoor roller coaster project last month - appear to have eased in recent weeks.

Three weeks ago, park president Larry D. Litton, faced with having to seek a new set of permits after several changes were made to the plans previously approved by city boards, said, "We're still hoping to open by Memorial Day weekend, but the town of Agawam is sure making it difficult to do that."

Litton said a Memorial Day weekend opening is no longer realistic.

"The best-case scenario, we're hoping that we're building again by the 10th or 11th of April," said Litton, "We're going to get it open as early as we possibly can."

The amusement park is scheduled to open for the season April 12.

Faced with time constraints that include a tie-in with this summer's opening of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight," Six Flags may have jumped the gun a bit on building its "Dark Knight Coaster" ride, Litton conceded.

"We did start construction before we had all the construction permits," he said. "We did not expect the uproar this has caused."

Building Inspector Dominic Urbinati issued a stop-work order on Feb. 20, saying Six Flags had begun significant construction without a building permit.

Without the proper construction documents, Urbinati said, there was no way he could ensure the project met state building and safety codes.

Three weeks ago, Litton said of Six Flags and the City of Agawam, "It's not an ideal working relationship right now," but last week he amended that, saying, "I'm feeling a lot better about it."

"A lot of it was misinformation and miscommunication," he said. "I think it just took getting people to the table, and explaining what we did and why we did it (and) why we were not happy with the way things were originally handled."

Litton credited Mayor Susan R. Dawson, state Rep. Rosemary Sandlin, D-Agawam, state Sen. Stephen J. Buoniconti, D-West Springfield, and the City Council, among others, for helping turn the situation around.

Of Dawson, he said, "She has done all she can do to expedite the process."

Dawson complimented Litton in return and said, "They're in a tough spot right now," a nod to the pressure Six Flags is under to get the state's first indoor roller coaster up and running.

"Everybody is trying to do what they can (to help), but we're still faced with guidelines that we just can't get around," Dawson said.

"If they had gotten the permits at the beginning," she said, "we would have had more latitude to help get this through at the beginning, but the communication just wasn't there."

The new plans - primarily a 10-foot shift in the building's footprint to meet state fire safety codes - passed muster with the Planning Board on March 20 and with the Conservation Commission last Thursday. On Friday, at 11 a.m. at the Agawam Department of Public Works building at 1000 Suffield St., the Zoning Board of Appeals will review the new plans.

If the Zoning Board - which granted a special permit for a height variance Feb. 11 on the original plans - approves the new plans, that should pave the way for Urbinati to issue a building permit for the project, officials have said.

Safety remains the company's primary concern, Litton said. "We do not open the ride until every inch has been inspected," he said. "Safety is always our number-one concern."

Permitting board members have been sympathetic to Six Flags - which pays more than $2 million to the city in taxes each year - but have also been critical of park officials for starting construction without all the required permits in place.

Every member interviewed said their board had treated Six Flags fairly.

"We treat everybody equally," said Planning Board Acting Chairman Travis P. Ward."We appreciate Six Flags as a good neighbor, but this was an issue of the town becoming aware that something wasn't quite right. This has to do with following the letter of the law, and protecting public safety."

"You go by the state regulations," Conservation Commission Chairman Henry Kozloski said. "We cannot speed up the process, which is controlled by the state."

An appeal of the earlier special permit granted by the Zoning Board has been filed in Hampden Superior Court on behalf of the owners of a Main Street property adjacent to Six Flags. Litton has indicated, however, that when all the permits have been approved, Six Flags intends to resume construction at its own risk as allowed by a state law passed in 2006.

If the appeal were to succeed, the court could order all or part of whatever had been constructed to be torn down, but Litton said he was confident Six Flags would prevail in the case.


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