This column is a companion to the WSBS radio call-in show, “It’s Not That Simple.” Every other Friday at 9:05 we will discuss and dissect issues that the citizens of Great Barrington are talking about. Click here to listen to the inaugural episode.
Have you ever read or heard about a problem facing the town and wondered why the elected boards don’t just fix it? The solution might seem obvious. Usually, It’s Not That Simple. If the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems.
We will explore the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why It’s Not That Simple. We will do our best to steer clear of opinion and to just point out the issues that make the problems more complex than they might appear.
Although we both serve on elected town boards, we are not speaking for those boards or for the town in any capacity. We are only representing ourselves on the radio show and in this column.
One of the issues we discussed this week was the Ried Cleaners building on Main Street, across the street from the Mason Library.
We’re all familiar with Ried Cleaners. It’s been vacant, deteriorating, and toxic for years and it sits right in the middle of our downtown. The simple and obvious questions this eyesore raises are:
Why hasn’t it been cleaned up?
What’s taking so long?
Why not knock it down and put parking there?
We hear these comments all the time. The answer, It’s Not That Simple.
First, until very recently it was private property. The town can’t just walk onto someone else’s property and tear down a building. (As homeowners, we are both happy about that bit of protection from government). The town can’t even walk onto the property at all without permission or a court order.
When the property went into significant tax arrears, the town moved to take the property for back taxes. Again, we can’t just take it, everyone is entitled to their day in court. In this case, the day in court lasted years. (Land Court is very backed up and slow. Why don’t they hire more judges and staff in order to move faster? We don’t know, maybe It’s Not That Simple.)
The town did get permission to do environmental testing using a federal grant we got from the EPA. One of the issues with the property is that no buyer would touch it because any buyer would inherit the responsibility of cleaning up the site and the liability for any damages. Testing showed that there is, in fact, chemical pollution under the site. It took further testing to know the extent of the contamination and an estimated cost to remediate.
In the meantime, land court finally stamped all the papers (or whatever land court does) and as of a week ago, the town now owns the property. So, why is it still sitting there looking ugly? Why not do something with the property: sell it and get it on the tax rolls, build badly needed affordable housing, demolish it and make it a parking lot? It’s Not That Simple.
Sell it: While we now know that there is contamination, we don’t know the extent and won’t for several more months until we get the results of the newest study. Until then, no private buyer is likely to take on the unknown liability. Also, it sits in a high profile location of our downtown. Do we care what goes there? Do we care what it looks like? Some people think it’s beautiful building worth keeping, even if that brings in less money. Others think we should just get rid of it as fast as we can. Both opinions can be supported.
Fill some town need: Do we sell it to the highest bidder no matter what the new owner wants to do with it? Or do we decide on some use the town needs (like affordable housing, or a restaurant like Martin’s that we all miss) and possibly take less money from someone who agrees to that use? Now that the town owns it, that is a possibility. Again, there are arguments for both opinions.
Turn it into parking: We will do a future column dedicated to downtown parking. There is a long-standing debate about how severe a problem it is and how much taxpayers will be willing to pay to address it. But why not, at least temporarily, take down the building and park there temporarily until a decision is made? Two reasons. First, no one has decided that the building can’t be saved or some future buyer wouldn’t be willing to pay more with the building standing than gone. That question can’t really be answered until we know the extent of the contamination. But the second reason is more interesting.
The town owns the site. But the town doesn’t own the liability just yet. The law allows the town to take property for back taxes but not assume the same liability that a private buyer would assume. That’s because the town doesn’t necessarily want to own the site. The law protects a local government that is just holding a property until a responsible owner can be identified. But that protection ends if the town “uses” the site. As soon as we begin to improve the site, we are saying that it is ours and we are using it, and therefore, accept the (unknown) liability.
So, It’s Not That Simple. If I have a shed in my backyard that’s falling down, I can do the calculations in my head and make a decision quickly. What is the cost to tear down, how much to rebuild, do I need the storage or would I rather have the open space? But sometimes, It’s Not That Simple.
Is there’s an issue you’d like to discuss on the show? We invite your contribution of topics and concerns that may be of interest and that might seem simple to address. Maybe there IS an obvious solution we haven’t thought of, or maybe It’s Not That Simple.
Email your suggestions or questions to NotThatSimple528@gmail.com
Next Show: June 21, at 9:05