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Heavy-duty dump trucks are among the vehicles resting at 11 Roger Road, which the town of Great Barrington proposes to buy from from owner Gary J. O'Brien and GJO LLC.

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

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By Monday, Jul 30, 2018 News 22

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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22 Comments   Add Comment

  1. John says:

    So, 35 households bought property adjacent to an industrial site in use since the 1930’s, and now claim ignorance?
    Every town taxpayer should not be on the hook for this, because 35 households don’t like the choice of the pre existing neighbor. That is a really really bad precedent to set…
    35 unhappy whiny households can band together and each pony up 11,500, and then call it their own play yard for 400,000.

    1. Jeff says:

      As a family who has lived on Blue Hill for over 40 years, I can guarantee no one heard us complain. Please do not ever lump us into a list of 35 nearby residents. As the crow flies less than 1500 feet away. the list should be 34 households at least and I’m sure that should be even less. this town spends money like it grows on trees! raise taxes that will fix it all…..this is the dumbest thing the town has done and it has done some pretty stupid things!

  2. Steve Farina says:

    There was a lot of hub bub and derogatory statements towards Laura Keener for raising over 300 signatures (almost as many people who attended the ATM) to call for a Special Town Meeting. People were complaining about the cost of said STM, including the additional $2000 to advertise it and let the GB voters know about it. The Select Board deemed it unnecessary to advertise such a meeting on its merits, set the date for the meeting where it puts the petition as currently worded in potential legal peril, then has the audacity to add $400,000 (by the time the legal and property transfer associated fees are covered) worth of financial matters before the Town at a meeting they refused to pay an additional $2000 worth of advertising for – potentially keeping participation to a minimum.

    THANK YOU!! To The Berkshire Edge for covering the stories and keeping the conversation going about the STM issues. And for alerting the voting, taxpaying residents of GB to the existence of the meeting, and the need to address the added financial burden to their Town budgets.

  3. kritterz says:

    Of course it’s taxpayer’s money

    1. Brendon says:

      Correct, it is the taxpayers money. But that money will be used to buy the land as proposed by SB, or pay attorneys in fighting multiple legal battles. Voters to decide. Choose wisely.

  4. Steve Farina says:

    The $20,000 for the chimneys is a necessary repair and hopefully an easy “yes” vote.

    We should not be raising and appropriating funds for the transfer station building, and we should Definitely not borrow money for it. $65,000 is probably between 15 and 20 taxpayers property taxes, and should not be added to the burden – This article should be voted “NO” unless it is reworded at the STM to specify a transfer of funds already in the budget. Let’s show some fiscal restraint.

    Along the lines of fiscal restraint, the purchase of the Roger Rd property should also be vote “NO” – at this meeting. Though the money is sitting in a “pot” and not an added tax burden, it is still taxpayer money. With no plan on future use of the property once in Town possession we have no idea of the ultimate cost to the taxpayer. Insurance costs will have to be bourne by the Town at least until some future disposition. It is unclear if the Town can sell the property at a profit, or if some developer may come in and get a bargain price for 8 acres of residental property begging to be gentrified. These and other important issues should be brought before the Town Meeting assembly and addressed (with REAL, not nebulous plans) so we have a full picture of the cost.
    While it would be nice to have the litigation end, it is incumbent upon our elected representatives to provide a more comprehensive plan. This will ultimately be more than $300,000 of taxpayer money.

    The contract can be altered to change the settlement date until after next year’s ATM once we have had time to discuss this as a community.

    Vote “NO” on this until we have more answers.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      I am unsure if you are agreeing with me or not….
      I am not against the Town purchasing the property, per se. I am opposed to going into it without more knowledge and expectation around the ultimate disposition of the property, nor the costs involved with whatever that may be. If we have to pay a few more months of legal fees to avoid a potential $300K albatross around our necks, it will be worth it. I agree we need to educate ourselves on the issue, which is why I propose a “NO ” vote as a delay to give the Town taxpayers an opportunity to discuss it fully.

  5. W.C. says:

    Past history seems to prove that the Town government is not all that good with real estate transaction. I cite the old fire house, Housatonic School, and cost overruns at the new fire station. this needs to be another way to resolve this issue.

    1. Tom Blauvelt says:

      For your information the new fire house was completed under budget and ahead of schedule.

      1. John says:

        And how many million dollars, was the new firehouse?
        You can set a “budget” to be outrageous, and come in “ under budget” and claim to be a hero…. Governments are well adept at this marketing tactic

  6. Joe T. says:

    Sounds like 35 neighbors are going to get a by right Municipal Sanitary Landfill under section 7.11 of the GT Barr Zoning Bylaw and the Mass General Law attached to 7.11 of the Gt Barr Zoning Bylaw MGL Chapter 111. section 150A, Solid Waste Disposal Facilities;Maintenance and Operation; Applications for Site Assignment And Section 150a1/2; Standards and Criteria for Siting of Facilities; rules and regulations.

    1. Blue Hill Road resident says:

      Yeah, lucky us. But, better than 4 axle dump trucks rubbling through the neighborhood waking people up at all hours and spewing toxic diesel fumes.

      At least this group of Town leadership appears to be trying to solve a longtime problem (largely create by prior Town administrations by avoidance/indifference)

  7. Blue Hill Road neighbor says:

    Possible positive and beneficial uses of the property:

    -Trailhead (w/ limited parking), access point to BNRC Thomas Parker Land Preserve
    -Dog park?

  8. John says:

    This is an excellent site for a large low income housing project! Wouldn’t have the potential for Housatonic River flooding like the Bridge street site.

  9. Michelle Loubert says:

    Just a note, no figures have been provided as to the cost to litigate other than “many tens of thousands” which can mean anything. As a Finance Committee member, “many tens of thousands” means nothing to me. In other words, how do I know if this purchase is the right action without figures to conduct an analysis? I’ve requested figures as to the approximate cost of litigation. After all, what would voters do if at budget time, you only had such vague information to vote on? This is no different.

    1. Blue Hill Road resident says:

      I agree with the premise and “the ask”, though in fairness, there is no way to predict the ultimate and total cost of litigation, both with Business, and with residents in the neighborhood. There are far too many moving parts.

      Any figures would be nothing more than a guesstimate (aka WAG) based on a list of assumptions. Additionally (and this appears to be key factor), litigation path limits predictability of outcome. So as example, Town could spend 100,000 to litigate, and win against the Business, but also spend 80,000 and lose against the Residents – who want non-conformity removed and return to complete residential status (or perhaps open/green space via another commenter about trailhead access to land preserve). Or Town could spend that 180k and lose legally and still have the same issue, whereby that $ got you nothing.

      So 180k to lawyers. How do you arrive at other sunk costs of time of Town officials working on this matter instead of other business? How do you arrive at cost to neighborhood residents who grow more litigious by the day? What is cost to Town and neighborhood residents if this matter continues for 1-2 years of litigation? Or, spend another 120k and find an appropriate use of the land, and end the matter comparatively quickly? Dog park? Open/Green space?

      The point is, this has to be evaluated and considered in terms of financial cost, as well as other “costs”.

  10. Rich says:

    Ideally Town residents would have every fact and piece of data available to make a completely informed decision. I’m just not sure that is realistic.

    As a resident of this neighborhood, even since the Town ZBA ruling (Apr30) and the enforcement date (Jun14) of ruling – NOTHING has changed. Dump trucks EVERY morning at ~430am and throughout the day.. Tractor trailer trucks. Large refueling trucks. Every day. There has been ZERO enforcement by the Town of their own ruling.

    [Otherwise] This is a quiet neighborhood. Families. Children. Pets. Retirees. That are being subjugated by the Business and a woefully slow to act Town. When should we wait to: until people/children start developing health problems from diesel fumes/exhaust and other environmental pollution? And then the Town faces a REAL legal problem?

    More legal spending is approaching VERY fast – on two battlefronts. It may just make sense to end the Legal battles and figure out the land use later. I’d support the comment below of a trailhead access point to BNRC land over the hill!

    Make no mistake, this problem was not created by the area residents, it was created by the past/current Business land owners, and the past iterations of Town leadership. Period end of story.

    The effort residents had been made to go through, along with conditions/status quo to endure is embarrassing and shameful to the Town.

  11. W.C. says:

    It’s buyer remorse, the site has been there for decades back to Roger’s Trucking. You should have checked the Carfax for lack of a better term. The town should not spend a dime of taxpayer money to own a property that will be a continuing burden.

    1. John says:

      Exactly. It’s like buying a house next to the fire station, then complaining about sirens…

    2. Peter says:

      @WC – Everyone is entitled to an opinion. But one certainty is that Town/taxpayer money will be spent. If not to buy the land, then it will be to fight 2 legal battles. Cheers!

  12. Blue Hill Road Improvement Group says:

    From the Town of Great Barrington Master Plan—

    Goal LU 5: Ensure all neighborhoods are safe places with housing and home business opportunities for people of all ages and incomes. In some areas, mixed-use is not an appropriate goal, and it is better for both businesses and residences if the two are buffered from one another. Businesses need to conduct business, receive deliveries, and unload their trash dumpsters. Residents expect and deserve quiet neighborhoods free from odor, glare, noise and other impacts of commercial activity. Proper buffering and design standards can help ensure business remains healthy and residential property values remain stable, while still encouraging concentration of development in the core areas.

    1. Tom Blauvelt says:

      Hello Blue,
      This is also from the Town’s Master Plan – Goal SF 2: Be fiscally prudent by increasing partnerships and cooperation. If this property comes off the tax rolls, then the loss in revenue will have to be made up by everyone else.

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