Great Barrington — A loud business that’s violating the law and out of character with a residential neighborhood. Neighbors who are fed up with inaction and a selectboard at wit’s end with an unresponsive business owner.
Just another day in Town Hall, you say? Not quite. Half a dozen residents of the Blue Hill Road neighborhood, which is set off to the east of Stockbridge Road (Route 7) came to the Great Barrington Selectboard meeting Monday night (Dec. 11) to complain and sometimes vent about a heavy-equipment business whose vehicles roar up and down Blue Hill and Roger roads at all hours of the day – and night – and who seems to be ignoring a cease-and-desist order from building inspector and zoning enforcement officer Edwin May.
“The citizens of the neighborhood need to band together and start a revolt in order to make things better,” said Dr. John Wojcik, who lives at 1 Roger Rd. “He runs stop signs and speeds along. There are dozens of trucks from Lee. Blue Hill Road is their favorite freeway.”
See video below of Dr. John Wojcik complaining to the selectboard:
“He” is Gary J. O’Brien, whose company, GJO LLC, operates various businesses including Irish Trucking, O’Brien Landscaping and Roger Trucking Services. The latter is a waste hauling and recycling company.
According to town manager Jennifer Tabakin, O’Brien’s Great Barrington operations, while located in a residential zone, predate the town’s adoption of zoning regulations in the 1930s, so they are considered pre-existing nonconforming uses.
Nevertheless, O’Brien has pushed the envelope and has been issued multiple cease-and-desist orders in the last six years. On June 23, 2011, May issued O’Brien an order to immediately cease using the property as a landscaper’s yard because he was only permitted to use it as a tree farm. If he wanted to use it as a landscaper’s yard, he would have to apply for a special permit from the zoning board of appeals. The property had been found to be in violation three times in seven months.
The most recent order, dated Nov. 22, can seen by clicking here. It cites “multiple complaints” over the past four months about trucks “rumbling up Blue Hill Road, dumping materials and heavy equipment at early morning hours.” The order demands that O’Brien cease the illegal activity immediately.
May said O’Brien’s actions exceed the sort permitted on a property whose use is nonconforming. Furthermore, O’Brien’s operations are a violation of the 1996 agreement for judgement in the case of the Town of Great Barrington v. Leamon Roger, which May had also cited in previous orders. That judgement ordered O’Brien to halt all transfer-station activities.
May’s site visit of Aug. 22 revealed waste dumping and the expansion of a parking lot without a site-plan review required by the town’s zoning bylaws. May ordered O’Brien to file for a site-plan review with the planning board.
Exacerbating the matter is that, as of Monday night’s selectboard meeting, O’Brien had not responded to May’s order, leaving the board scratching its collective heads about what step to take next.
If O’Brien disagrees with May’s order, then he has the right to appeal it to the zoning board of appeals, which he did when confronted with another order several years ago. But, so far, he has not acknowledged the order, nor has he indicated whether he intends to contest it.
The complexity and uncertainty of the process left many residents wondering if the town was taking their complaints (and May’s order) seriously. Some said that, in the past, they had called the police when they heard the rumblings and excessive noise. Sometimes the police were responsive but, on other occasions, they were not.
“They don’t care or they don’t want to get involved,” said Paul Jones, who said his father was a longtime Great Barrington police officer and a former acting chief. He said police have responded to the scene after complaints, watched O’Brien’s trucks run the stop sign at the bottom of Roger Road and done nothing. But mostly he was vexed that the quality of his life has been reduced greatly by the activity.
“I’m talking 30-ton trucks when they’re full going up and down that hill, shaking houses, shaking foundations,” Jones said, the exasperation evident in his voice. “The noise is inescapable. This has turned into an industrial siege.”
See video below of Paul Jones and Dr. Ruby Chang complaining and the selectboard deliberating over the matter:
Dr. Ruby Chang, a pediatrician and Wojcik’s wife, was most concerned about matters of public health–diesel exhaust and the effect it has on the human body.
“The citizens in and around my neighborhood are not being heard,” said Chang, who has lived at 1 Roger Rd. for five years and also sits of the town’s board of health. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take before these people who have lived there for 30 or 40 years to get lung cancer.”
Since the matter came up during the public-comment portion of the meeting and was not on the agenda, the board appeared unprepared to talk about it in great detail.
Tabakin said the ZBA could make the final determination but selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton wondered how the matter could come before the ZBA if O’Brien simply ignored May’s order and did not appeal it. Tabakin was unsure whether the selectboard could appeal directly to the ZBA for a ruling, though she said the board could vote to ask the ZBA to put the matter on its agenda.
Fairview Terrace resident Roger Belanger, who submitted a letter of complaint to the board, said of the cease-and-desist order: “It must have been very weak because the noise continues. I just don’t understand why the board doesn’t act or they’re afraid to act.”
See video below of Fairview Terrace resident Roger Belanger speaking and the selectboard and town manager Jennifer Tabakin responding:
“The problem with enforcement is the previous ZBA ruling did not prohibit the trucks from being on the road,” Tabakin explained. “They established that it was a permissible nonconforming use.”
Stanton wanted to know if O’Brien would face a daily fine for operating in defiance of May’s order. No one seemed to know, but planning board member Jonathan Hankin said zoning violations are subject to fines, though he did not know if one had been levied against O’Brien.
“Anyone violating zoning can be fined $300 a day,” Hankin said. He added that, if O’Brien remained unresponsive, then the board should ask May what the next step should be.
May said in 2011 that, if O’Brien failed to stop his operations, daily fines will accrue at a rate of $25 for the first day, $50 for the second, $100 for the third and $200 for each subsequent day he is in contempt of the order. Failing that, the next step is to take O’Brien to court.
At that time, O’Brien’s lawyer, Edward “Buddy” McCormick, contended that the 1996 Superior Court judgment allowed certain limited commercial activities on the property, permission that he insisted was passed on to O’Brien when he purchased the parcel in 2010.
It is clear that something needs to be done soon, if for no other reason than to protect the sanity and well-being of nearby residents. In addition to the trucks and the transfer station activities, there are reports of race cars gunning their engines on the O’Brien property on the weekends.
“The excessive truck noises start as early as 4 a.m. and run until as late as 8 p.m., said Michael Andelman, who lives at 17 Blue Hill Rd. “The slam of heavy metal, possibly tailgates of dump trucks start sometimes earlier than 4 a.m. and banging loudly throughout the day.”
Andelman, who had filed a formal complaint to the town, further described “the outrageous noise of what I think is a race car starting, idling and revving, sounding like explosions intermittently any day of the week.” The noise is made worse by the elevation of the O’Brien property which sits on the side of a hill and overlooks the aggrieved residential neighbors to the west.
See video below of Blue Hill Road resident Michael Andelman’s plea to the selectboard:
“He has four racing cars up there. We hear them on the weekends,” added Wojcik. “Whenever I call the police department, I get laughed at.”
In addition, a house at the bottom of the driveway that is part of the O’Brien property is boarded up and has been unoccupied since at least 2011, Jones said. That raises questions, he added, about whether the property can continue to operate as a nonconforming use if it has a “residence with no residents.”
“The fact that you’re getting laughed at when you call the police department needs to be dealt with,” Stanton replied. “The fact that the house is condemned needs to be dealt with.”
Selectman Steve Bannon noted that the board was “caught between a rock and hard place.” He suggested the board direct Tabakin to investigate the matter and return with a preliminary report at the board’s next scheduled meeting on Monday, Dec. 18, at 7 p.m. The motion passed unanimously.