Back taxes may force polluted Ried Cleaners into town’s hands

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By Thursday, Dec 22 News  6 Comments
Heather Bellow
Ried Cleaners, at 318 Main St., adjacent to the Post Office and across the street from the Mason Library, has been closed for 10 years but the carcinogenic contaminants from the dry cleaning operation have been migrating to nearby properties. A 2015 offer to buy the property and clean it up was rejected.

Great Barrington — When the pollution runs downhill, so does the money.

The Ried Cleaners property is a slice of prime Main Street real estate, one the town is itching to get back on the tax rolls, one that has leached poisons for decades that are traveling beneath town streets in the range of “potential” drinking water sources and have possibly reached the Housatonic River.

But rather than hitting those tax rolls, nonpayment of taxes is about to land the town with a new building to deal with, not to mention environmental hassles.

Everyone worked hard to prevent this. But the first buyer’s inspection on the property turned up catastrophic contamination from dry cleaning chemicals and, just like those migrating poisons, it was downhill from there.

“We don’t want to own it,” said Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin at a recent Selectboard meeting.

And who can blame her? This was the site of an old-style dry cleaning business that, for 54 years, used butetrachloroethylene (PCE), which leaked through the building’s floor drains. PCE was used in dry cleaning solutions because it is nonflammable and highly stable.

An aerial view of the Ried Cleaners site at 318 Main St. in Great Barrington with blue lines indicating groundwater contours. Blue arrows indicate direction of groundwater flow.

An aerial view of the Ried Cleaners site at 318 Main St. in Great Barrington with blue lines indicating groundwater contours. Blue arrows indicate direction of groundwater flow.

Town Planner Christopher Rembold told The Edge last year that “a worst case scenario” is if the contaminants have “reached bedrock,” and said he could not speculate on whether this had happened. A 2015 Phase II environmental study paid for by a $91,000 state grant secured by the town says the monitoring wells do not extend to deeper strata bedrock and so, right now, it is unknown just how far the pollutants travelled since there wasn’t enough money to bore more deeply into the ground.

Contaminated groundwater may move more rapidly if it reaches bedrock, according to the report.

Not only that, that toxic plume may have created a health hazard in the U.S. Post Office next door and possibly in other buildings in the pollution’s southeast path.

So it was a hard sell even at $169,000, the asking price as of December 2015. After that first buyer’s inspection, the price had taken a nosedive from $795,000.

Ried’s owed the town roughly $55,000 in back property taxes, according to Tabakin. In 2015 it was assessed at $288,300.

Eric Steuernagle of Isgood Realty had said last year that at least a half dozen offers to buy the property had come in over the nine years it had been on the market, but said the offers were too low to clear debts to the town and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). Steuernagle did not return calls for this article.

The back of Ried Cleaners with the steeple of St. Peter’s Chuch peeking above its roofline. Photo: Heather Bellow

The back of Ried Cleaners with the steeple of St. Peter’s Chuch peeking above its roofline. Photo: Heather Bellow

At a recent Selectboard meeting, Tabakin announced that the town had begun the tax-taking process. Tabakin wrote in an email that a Land Court case was filed in September 2016 and pending review.

Tabakin also said that, right now, the town does not have any grant money to clean up the property.

Alarm had also spread through town last year after the rejection of a $100,000 offer on Ried’s made by a developer with environmental remediation experience. Developer Jeffrey Cohen of Mill Renaissance LLC had said he wanted to tear down the building and build a complex for retail, offices and possibly an apartment or two. Cohen is developing the Eagle Mill complex in Lee, which itself has asbestos and lead contamination that will require remediation in the cost range of $1.2 million.

“We’re familiar with how to deal with these issues,” Cohen had said. “In my 45 years of experience, I have never been involved in a situation where an owner with a problem property was unwilling to negotiate the price in the context of a credible offer from an experienced developer.”

But Ried Realty Trust attorney Edward McCormick had said the Ried family was facing a “black hole.” Early on, the family paid $400,000 for a study to see how far the contaminants had traveled. The family got an estimate of $1 million just to transport the toxic soil to an appropriate disposal site found only in the Midwest.

“The [Ried] corporation ran out of money,” McCormick said.

Not only did it run out, it owed. McCormick said Ried Realty Trust had an “understanding” with the town that, upon sale, it would reimburse the back taxes, and another agreement with the state to pay back a $91,000 brownfields grant. But there were also MassDEP liens on the property, though McCormick said he didn’t know for how much.

The family, he had said, “is not going realize anything from [the sale].” He added that the family wanted to be relieved of liability and knew the importance of redeveloping the property.

A similar situation unfolded in Pittsfield when an inspection turned up dry cleaning chemicals blocks away from the former Stetson Cleaners at 35-41 Federal St. in back of City Hall. The Stetson owner had closed up shop in 2006 and owed $100,000 in back taxes.


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6 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Kayemtee says:

    I guess this is the price for all of those free fly swatters we got from Reid Cleaners when I was a kid.

  2. Joseph Method says:

    I have never understood how the town could spend money on any other priority if the danger is as great as the articles in the Edge suggest. Nobody will care about new sidewalks if the drinking water is full of carcinogens.

  3. Tony Blair says:

    This site poses significant risks, but they are not to Great Barrington’s drinking water supply, which comes from an aquifer over off of Hurlburt Road. And I do not know of any private drinking water wells in this area. So it would perhaps be helpful to clarify that in the article. Yes, the site is in the very northern fringe of a Zone II Wellhead Protection Area for the Town of Sheffield, so much so that the protection area ends at Rosseter Street.

    According to a friend of mine who is a Licensed Site Professional or LSP (a person who manages clean-ups of sites like this), this is one of the most polluted sites in Massachusetts, so yes it is a big deal, and I would think the Town would do everything in its power NOT to own this property under any circumstances, just as it took pains not to own the New England Log Homes site. Whoever owns it owns the costs of cleaning it up – and although a town can perhaps be eligible for grants that might be hard for a developer to obtain, the potential price to the Town is unknown and unknowable, at least as of October 2015.

    In a report entitled “Technical Report for Remedial Evaluation” prepared by TRC Environmental out of Lowell, MA, and dated October 2105, they estimated that the cost to do the next phase of a study of JUST the deep groundwater investigation (the part you refer to above as getting down to the bedrock) could run from $50,000 to $500,000. So they picked $100,000 as the number they would use in their report. That was just the first of 6 steps that would be “required by the Massachusetts Contingency Plan . . by the responsible party”. That “responsible party” is what the Reeds are now, and what the Town would become if it owned this property. Yes, they can go after the costs from the original owners, but it’s pretty clear that they are not in a position to pay for much. And arrangements can be made to reduce the liability of a new owner who is buying a site that is know to be contaminated and plans to clean it up.

    Then you get to the part of the report that suggests it could cost $2,300,000 to remove soils that are contaminated with PCE & PRB. . . . and yes, maybe you don’t need to remove all of those soils, just some. So maybe it will be less. But maybe not. Craps anyone?

    Does the Town really want to take that on? Why is a tax taking already underway? To recover $40,000 in back taxes at the potential price of millions of dollars of future costs (some of it paid for by grants – which in turn take time, effort and money to write, obtain and manage)??

    I can’t remember exactly how much back taxes were owed by NE Log Homes, and those were eventually forgiven when the CDC took over the site – but if there is a developer willing and able to buy the property and take on the risk, then does it really make sense for the town or the DEP or anybody else who is owed money to hold out for repayment when having no buyer means this kind of cost to taxpayers?

    I would think you would give it away as fast as you can.

    1. Stephen L. Cohen says:

      As usual, Tony’s comments are so well researched and thoughtout it is hard to imagine any other conclusion. What a pleasure to see a real analysis and not a rant.

  4. Ben Silberstein, FCA, MAAA, ACAS says:

    This is a very serious situation. We do not know the extent of the plume, how far it may extend in the future, nor what adjacent properties are presently or might become impacted.

    The resolution of this situation is actually quite simple. While it is understandable the town does not want to own the property and become a Potentially Responsible Party (PRP) with respect to possible litigation and remediation, the process of taking over the property should begin; at the same time the town can negotiate with a builder/developer experienced in remediation who is willing to take the property. Such negotiations would include an escrow account or perhaps a performance bond assuring the developer does not walk away and leave the town holding the bag.

    Of course the simple approach would be for the Reid Family Trust to just give the property to said developer. It is quite perplexing why the $100,000 offer for the property was not accepted.

    Eventually this will come to a head resulting in significant litigation with the town being named a PRP. It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road and take care of this problem now.

  5. Ted B. says:

    So why should the town take it back for back taxes ?
    Isn’t it just a giant polluted burden ?
    Or….is it better for the whole of the town to take it and then get grants and subsidies from the Fed and State governments to take care of the toxic mess ?

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