Great Barrington — Contrary to the opinion of its own attorney, the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) has ruled that a revised proposal for the reuse of 100 Bridge Street constitutes a “substantial change” that would, in effect, invalidate a major permit the board originally issued for the project in 2016.
At a meeting Tuesday night, the board heard from Tim Geller, who heads the nonprofit group Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire. Geller and his engineer explained the changes, which were mostly necessitated by decisions made by the state Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP put the kibosh on a previous remediation plan for the toxic former industrial site most recently used by New England Log Homes.
See video below of a presentation by CDC to the ZBA, followed by a discussion and vote on whether an earlier permit issued in 2016 was still valid:
After the meeting, Geller told The Edge that the ZBA’s decision has “significantly put the proposal at risk” (see statement at bottom of this page) and that CDC is considering withdrawing its request to move the affordable housing farther away from the town’s wastewater treatment plant and revert to a previous iteration of the plan that included a non-permanent remediation of the site.
The site has a long and controversial history. In 2016, the CDC received the go-ahead from the ZBA to build 45 affordable housing units, known as the Bentley Apartments, that would be sited on two acres at the southern end of the property on the banks of the Housatonic River and next to the town sewage treatment plant. Eventually, the $40 million project was expected to add a mix of market-rate residential units and retail space.
In 2014, CDC had begun to remediate the site using a process known as bioremediation, but the DEP put a stop-work order on the operation after neighbors complained about the odor during a summer of heavy rains. Eventually the department shut down the process altogether, leaving CDC to come up with another strategy to deal with the PCPs and dioxins left by New England Log Homes.
Then the CDC proposed to essentially remove the toxic soil and flip it with the cleaner soil beneath it, cleaning up portions of the property as they were being built out. But that plan was ultimately rejected by the state, as well.
“The decision significantly decreased the development capacity of the site, so we ended up with two clean parcels: the Bentley Apartments and a commercial parcel,” Geller explained.
CDC’s latest plan is to remove the toxic soil and pile it up on three separate berms on the property. The contaminated soil would be covered with a hard protective layer that includes Geofabric, Geller said. Clean soil would then be added over the top and vegetation planted. CDC engineer Bryan J. Balicki of Furrow Engineering said that “separating the soil and capping it in landscaped berms is the best permanent solution that the team was able to come up with.” Click here to read CDC’s most recent remedy implementation plan for the site.
See image of the most recent preliminary proposal below (click here for a larger view):
The berms will take up a lot of room on the site, so instead of a town green and market-rate housing to complement the affordable housing, there would only be the affordable housing and, likely, a complex for senior living. Geller said he is in “advanced talks” with a Vermont company about building an 80-unit senior housing complex on the northern end of the property with both independent and assisted living.
Balicki pointed out that the new design addresses one of the most persistent criticisms of the old plan, made most recently by 100 Bridge Street critic Bobby Houston in a letter to the editor of The Edge, that the positioning of the affordable housing relegated its tenants to living next to the town’s wastewater treatment plant. Under the most recent plan, however, the Bentley Apartments would be moved about 60 feet away from the plant and protected by a berm some 8 feet high.
“The language that is always being used is the CDC is ghettoizing our poor, or low- and moderate-income families,” Geller said, the frustration evident in his voice. “We think that description is absurd, given where the site is … and the fact that … 50 percent of the families in Great Barrington qualify for these units.”
So that was the question before the zoning board: Is the proposed modification of the permit significant enough to void the previous comprehensive permit issued under Chapter 40B? Most members thought the change was indeed significant.
“You now have the housing wedged between these two berms,” said ZBA member Steve McAlister, an architect whose offices are across the street from the site. “That wasn’t the case before. It’s an entirely different site than it was.”
“It’s not within my conscience to just rubber stamp it, because I think it is a really bad plan that will come back to haunt the town,” McAlister continued. “And I think it stigmatizes the housing … I still think the town deserves better than this.”
Both McAlister and ZBA member Michael Wise were also concerned that CDC did not supply an estimate on the projected cost of removing and disposing of the contaminated soil. McAlister called it a “major omission.”
Geller said he could share those figures but did not do so publicly at the meeting. Previously, he had said the cost of removing the contaminated soil and disposing of it would be “prohibitive,” which is why CDC never proposed it.
There was also a discussion of a March 19 memorandum written by town counsel David Doneski concerning CDC’s request for a modification. Click here to read it. Doneski said he participated in a March 15 conference call with town planner Chris Rembold, Geller, and the CDC’s legal counsel.
After reviewing the CDC’s plans, Doneski concluded: “In my view, the proposed changes do not appear to meet any of the triggers in the [state Department of Housing and Community Development] regulatory factors for a determination of substantial change.”
While Tuesday’s meeting was not a public hearing, Chairman Ron Majdalany entertained a few statements from those in attendance, including former Great Barrington resident Elizabeth Orenstein, who works for the Berkshire Environmental Action Team and cited state law.
“I urge you deeply to consider this a significant substantial change from the previously proposed plan and to put this back into public comment and re-hear for this site,” Orenstein said to applause.
McAlister made a motion to determine that the changes were significant enough to force a new comprehensive permit application. Wise, who voted against the comprehensive permit in 2016, said, “I’m a bit on the fence about this.”
“I appreciate that it’s moving [the housing] farther away from the sewer plant, putting a barrier between housing and the sewer plant,” Wise said. “But it creates a concern about this whole thing being isolated, out-of-sight and out-of-mind out there in the corner.”
The motion passed 4–1, with Madonna Meagher and Carolyn Ivory joining McAlister and Wise, and only Majdalany voting against it. The board tentatively scheduled a meeting for Thursday, April 4, to further consider the proposed changes.
The CDC purchased the property in 2007 and the charred factory ruins were demolished and removed some four years later. The property had been used for industrial purposes even before New England Log Homes started its operations there.
For at least a decade, the CDC has tried to redevelop the lot, designated by the state as a brownfield, soon after obtaining ownership of the site that sits in a residential section of Great Barrington near downtown and is bordered by the Housatonic River on one side, the town’s sewer plant on another, and homes on the other two.
Reached after the meeting, Geller issued the following statement:
“I believe that most of those opposing this project have good intentions. It’s difficult, however, for those not involved in the complicated, interconnected-problem solving this site demands, to hold all of the physical, environmental and financial constraints in balance when proposing simple site changes. One important element often forgotten is that additional commercial development on the site is compulsory. Without this development, the CDC will be called to repay over $2 million in grant funds that were predicated on creating jobs at the site; this in addition to over $800,000 in debt that we have been carrying since we demolished the buildings in 2012. The affordable housing without the capacity for commercial development is a nonstarter.
The CDC has worked hard to bring 45 units of beautiful, new, highly energy-efficient affordable family apartments to Great Barrington, in a setting that is safe and community friendly. The board’s decision has significantly put this at risk. We are considering withdrawing our request for moving the parcel 67 feet to the north, and building to the previously ZBA-approved plan using the previously DEP-approved remediation plan. This would, unfortunately, leave the balance of the site with only a temporary solution to the contamination and make potential commercial development significantly more onerous. But it will guarantee the successful critical first stage of the redevelopment of this difficult and currently dangerous site in the heart of town.”