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Selectboard sends Zoning Board list of 21 conditions for 100 Bridge Street project

The entire site, polluted with dioxins and pentachlorophenol, is a puzzle for both remediation and development economics.

Great Barrington — A warm and packed Town Hall meeting room Monday night (July 11) marked yet another installment in the long, torturous attempt to develop a contaminated brownfield in the heart of town.

The meeting ended with a unanimous recommendation that the project go forward, but with a list of conditions (see complete list of conditions at the end of this article) for the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) to consider when it makes its own decision to issue a comprehensive permit.

While Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire’s (CDC) plans for 100 Bridge, a $40 million commercial, housing, and open-space development have been in the works for the last few years, a shift in the CDC’s permitting strategy has town officials and residents raising red flags at what CDC Executive Director Tim Geller said was the “11th hour.”

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A view of the southern section of 100 Bridge St. where affordable housing units would be situated. Beyond is the town’s sewage treatment plant. Photo: Isaac Scribner.

“We’ve been working with the town for a very long time,” Geller told the board. “No surprises, everyone knows what’s coming…it’s the same plan that the board unanimously recommended three months ago.”

Originally the ZBA was to consider the entire development but, because the state told the CDC its oversight would involve placing the same profit limitations across the site, the CDC had to separate the 45 affordable housing units out for the permitting process.

It is this split-off that has had everyone worried that the housing units, to be set on two acres at the south end of the eight-acre site, may never be part of a larger development ecosystem and be alone up against the wastewater treatment plant.

The entire site, polluted with dioxins and pentachlorophenol (PCP), is a puzzle for both remediation and development economics. Geller said the whole site would have to be remediated at once, easing some concerns that residents of the housing units, who would fall in the $45,000 to $60,000 income level, might be living amid a toxic wasteland should the rest of the site fail to be developed as envisioned.

The site plan for the 100 Bridge Street development.
The site plan for the 100 Bridge Street development.

But to interest developers with money to throw at a project there, the affordable housing needs to kick things off, Geller has previously said.

A 2014 bioremediation attempt was shut down by the state last year despite soil samples that showed significant reductions of the contaminants. MassDEP has closed that door, according to the CDC, and says to go with the cap and monitor method that brings “human and animal exposure to zero,” Geller said, with the most stringent standards at the affordable housing area and open space areas along the Housatonic River at the site’s western border.

Though Geller spoke of all the financial reasons the affordable housing must go next to the wastewater plant, residents and Green Tea Party (GTP) members couldn’t get their heads around it.

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Selectboard member Ed Abrahams said EPA standards should perhaps be trusted in this instance. Photo: Heather Bellow.

“The light and noise from wastewater treatment plant is all the time,” said JB Broder, who lives around the corner from it. She said the lights were bright at night. “I can’t think of a more inappropriate place to put any housing.”

Market rate housing is also planned for the site, along Bentley Avenue and on the western side facing the river.

Residents who live near the plant said they are breathing toxic chemicals emitted from it. Geller used another CDC affordable housing community, Pine Woods in Stockbridge, as an example. That housing, built with Construct Inc., is around 150 feet from a wastewater plant. According to Geller, residents have never complained of noise or chemicals.

But Maia Conty got up and said Pine Woods residents may not be complaining because they don’t know treatment plants emit chemicals, and that it was unethical to put “poor people” in harm’s way. “I would never ever choose to live there and expose my young daughter,” Conty added. “I would advise people not to.”

“We are not taking about poor people,” Geller said. “We’re talking about the people [like those] who run this town.”

Geller explained that the required income levels were in a bracket considered average, and that neighboring property values were in the $200,000 to $340,000 range, indicating a “relatively affluent” area. “We’re not talking about ghettoizing or hemming in…” he added. “There are more valuable and less valuable places on the site.” For the “economics” to work, he said, he had to “balance that out.”

“I can’t build affordable housing on the [Castle] Hill,” he said, as an example. “I can’t afford to. The housing is too expensive.”

Selectboard member Ed Abrahams wondered – a bit sharply, perhaps – if Conty didn’t trust the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards. “Do we stop development until we can get smarter than the EPA?” he asked her.

This set off a back-and-forth peppered by groans from the audience, a few of whom were fanning themselves with papers since the window air conditioning units were so noisy they’d been turned off.

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Developers and CDC board members Richard Stanley, left, and Jeffrey Cohen speak of economic realities in real estate development and affordable housing planning and construction. Photo: Heather Bellow.

The discussion turned to aesthetics. The board has already said it wants the affordable housing to look beautiful and not appear too different from the expensive housing planned for the site. The board was, however, generally unhappy with having so many units on two acres. Geller said that the 45 units were necessary for the “viability” of the project.

Two CDC board members, both successful developers, were there to explain that the development plan was crafted with the help of years of real estate experience. Jeff Cohen of Mill Renaissance LLC said projects “evolve over time,” and that the board “seriously considered the initial pushback and feedback” about the design and placement issues. He said it was “common around the world” to develop properties next to what people consider “undesirable” sites. Yet he said it was a “good plan that still needs a little more refinement.” He also said that it was unclear how the rest of the proposed development would unfold. He said the Berkshire Co-op Market was likely not a “viable option” as an anchor store in the commercial section, and that the CDC had been “approached by other local well-known retailers.” He said those discussions were “premature,” however.

Cohen reminded the board that the CDC’s mission is to develop affordable housing. And developer Richard Stanley reminded everyone that Berkshire County is a tough economic nut to crack. “This county is not going to survive on strictly tourist business…it’s been my smartass remark that we won’t need affordable housing if we have higher paying jobs…not likely to happen…who’s going to live there? A lot of people in this room…” He said it was “workforce housing.”

The conversation veered off into the bioremediation disappointment of last year, when heavy rains caused problems that prompted the state to shut the pilot project down. Board Chair Sean Stanton, and others in the audience, expressed frustration and a mistrust of MassDEP’s actions, and the EPA in general. “It pisses me off,” he said.

Geller said while he’s still in touch with BioPath Solutions, the bioremediation company, MassDEP has bolted that door shut.

“It was bureaucracy at its worst in the CYA [Cover Your Ass] mode,” Stanley added.

The discussion swerved again; now it was on to the wastewater plant.

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The Selectboard listens to residents and CDC board members. From left, Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, Board Chair Sean Stanton, Steve Bannon, Dan Bailly, Ed Abrahams and Bill Cooke. Photo: Heather Bellow.

Plant neighbor Mark Cohen said he supports the development “because, if the project doesn’t happen, what’s the alternative…it just lies fallow as it is?”

He said he also supports affordable housing. But, he said, residents there will be affected by the plant. He said it should be covered and, in addition to the plant’s treatment chemicals, volatilized polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a common wastewater treatment plant emission.

Adrienne Cohen said light and noise from the plant had “gotten worse.” She said, after complaints of sewage smells, more chemicals had been used, causing throats to “burn” and possibly creating her respiratory problems. She said there was a cancer cluster in the neighborhood around the plant.

Wastewater treatment plant director Tim Drumm could not be reached in time for this article.

Mark Cohen asked the board to find out how much it would cost to cover the plant, noting the town’s bond rating was high. Board member Dan Bailly grimaced. Housatonic resident Michelle Loubert, who has worked to keep sewer rates down, stood and said taxpayers would have to foot that bill.

Former Finance Committee Chair Sharon Gregory said she was concerned about the economic viability of 100 Bridge and asked if the affordable housing might have been planned differently if the commercial element was not in play. Geller said less density would make the economics “very tough.”

Jeff Cohen said the high demand for market-rate housing in town is a sign housing is needed.

Bobby Houston said 100 Bridge was at a “Wizard of Oz moment.” He said the CDC was asking people, “don’t look at those [other] six acres.”

Board member Bill Cooke didn’t like the idea of an isolated two acres, either: “As a site alone, it doesn’t work,” he said.

But, in the end, the board compromised and laid out conditions for the ZBA to consider. A copy of those conditions is reproduced below:

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SB_recommendations to_ZBA-2

 

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