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Town proposes to pay nearly $300,000 for troublesome O’Brien property

The money for the acquisition would come from a special revenue fund containing proceeds from the sale of town-owned real estate. O'Brien has been in violation of multiple cease-and-desist orders since 2011.

Editor’s note: This article has been revised to include the comments of neighbor Paul Jones.

Great Barrington — The town has agreed on a purchase price for a controversial property on Blue Hill Road that has given its neighbors headaches for years and has cost tens of thousands of dollars in billable hours from the town’s law firm.

In an email sent to The Edge this morning, Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin said the selectboard has reached an agreement with GJO LLC and owner Gary J. O’Brien to purchase 11 Roger Road for $298,000. Click here to see the one-page information sheet Tabakin disseminated to the news media. The document was prepared by town counsel.

The sale is conditioned on a satisfactory environmental review. O’Brien was initially asking $400,000 for the 8-acre property, which is assessed by the town for tax purposes at $255,300.

Great Barrington Selectboard Chair Steve Bannon. Photo: Heather Bellow

The money for the acquisition would come from a special revenue fund containing proceeds from the sale of town-owned real estate. That fund contains roughly $675,000 — most of it from the sale of the old Bryant and Searles schools several years ago, Tabakin told The Edge, so the sale would not affect the tax levy.

Steve Bannon, who chairs the Great Barrington Selectboard, told The Edge he is satisfied with the proposition to be put before voters.

“I am happy for two reasons,” Bannon said in an interview. “One is it will put an end to litigation with no end in sight. Two is we could find a way to repurpose the land.” Bannon declined to guess what that might be, though Tabakin added that Massachusetts General Law would permit the town to sell it to a third party.

As for the environmental investigation of the property, which has been used most recently as a trucking facility, Bannon said it would probably be covered using funds from a grant. If anything substantial is found, the town has an out.

“If they find something, we can walk away from the sale or renegotiate it,” Bannon explained.

Blue Hill Road resident Michael D. Andelman at July 16 meeting of the Great Barrington Selectboard. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Blue Hill Road resident Michael D. Andelman, who has been among the most vocal of the neighbors, had himself made an inquiry to a local real estate broker in February when “the property was not technically on the market.”

Andelman said he wanted to partner up with a nonprofit that might want to use the property, which abuts conservation lands and includes a condemned home at the bottom of the driveway leading to the trucking business and the outbuildings at the top of hill. 

In an interview, Andelman said he finds the proposed purchase to be curious: “I find it fishy that the town has put so much effort into purchasing this piece of property and I don’t feel as though the town has put any effort into pursuing the fines and ticketing since the 2011 cease-and-desist order.”

Andelman, who also co-chairs the town’s Cultural Council, said he did not want to “look a gift horse in the mouth” but he wondered aloud why the situation was not dealt with before and why the town has not successfully pursued the collection of the $300-per-day fines that have been piling up since the cease-and-desist order.

After this story was published, another neighbor, Paul Jones, who has in the past been critical of the town, issued the following statement to the Edge:

“If this passes it would be fair to say that the 35 households immediately surrounding and most directly affected by the GJO compound will be happy to finally get some relief. The attorney fees for these very intricate and involved lawsuits pending against the town will tap valuable taxpayer resources for years to come. The sale will prevent this from occurring. And not using taxpayer money for the purchase? Win-win. If the town can achieve the clean sale according to the summary as provided by the [town manager’s] office, then it will be a good investment.”

As allowed by the state’s open meetings law, the selectboard held a pair of closed-door meetings on the possible purchase and related litigation this month. Bannon said today’s announcement of an agreed-upon purchase price was made as a result of negotiations that only recently bore fruit. The selectmen and other town officials have largely declined to comment on the case since it went back into active litigation earlier this year.

Snowplows almost as far as the eye can see at 11 Roger Road, which the town of Great Barrington proposes to buy from from owner Gary J. O’Brien and GJO LLC.

Last December, several angry residents who live near O’Brien’s trucking operation went to a selectmen’s meeting to complain about a decades-old problem: a heavy-equipment business whose vehicles roar up and down the residentially zoned Blue Hill and Roger roads at all hours of the day and whose owner seemed to be ignoring the cease-and-desist order issued Nov. 22, 2017, by building inspector and code enforcement officer Ed May.

O’Brien 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, O’Brien 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 landscape at the residentally zoned 11 Roger Road, owned by Gary J. O’Brien and GJO LLC, was at some point altered to accomodate an extensive trucking operation.

Most recently, the case has resulted in another tangle of litigation. Eventually, the ZBA earlier this year allowed O’Brien to operate but with a list of conditions. O’Brien appealed the ZBA ruling in state Land Court, while a neighbor, O’Brien antagonist Roger Belanger, has sued the ZBA in Berkshire Superior Court. The selectboard has been discussing both of those cases in executive session this month, as well. 

The industrial use of O’Brien’s Great Barrington property, which is now now located in a residential zone, predates the town’s adoption of zoning regulations in the 1930s, so it is considered a pre-existing nonconforming use and is thus allowed to continue, though with certain restrictions. According to the town’s zoning map, 11 Roger Road falls within two zones, both of which are residential. 

What’s next

Town voters will decide whether to approve the purchase of 11 Roger Road at a special town meeting to be held Monday, Aug. 6, at 6 p.m. at Monument Mountain Regional High School. Also on the agenda will be a citizen petition to repeal a recent bylaw, passed at the annual town meeting in May, banning the sale of single-use plastic water bottles of 1 liter or less.

Voters will also be asked to approve $20,000 in emergency Community Preservation Act funds to replace the chimneys on Town Hall and “to see if the Town will vote to raise and appropriate, or borrow, or transfer from available funds the sum of $65,000 for construction work needed to complete the transfer station garage project.” Click here to view the warrant.

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