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.
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.
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.