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Terry Cowgill
Members of the Great Barrington Zoning Board of Appeals question the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire team at a March 19 meeting. From left: Ron Majdalany, Carolyn Ivory, Michael Wise and Madonna Meagher.

ZBA says changes to 100 Bridge Street too great, putting CDC development plan at ‘significant risk’

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By Thursday, Mar 21, 2019 News 8

Tim Geller, who heads the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire, explains the proposed revisions to the 100 Bridge Street project to members of the Great Barrington Zoning Board of Appeals at a March 19 meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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. 

Members of the Great Barrington Zoning Board of Appeals are skeptical of the presentation made March 19 by the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire. From left: Madonna Meagher, Steve McAlister and Don Hagberg. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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.

Bryan J. Balicki of Furrow Engineering explains the proposed revisions to the 100 Bridge Street project to members of the Great Barrington Zoning Board of Appeals at a March 19 meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“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 original site plan for a proposed 8-acre commercial and residential development, with an expanded Berkshire Food Co-op fronting Bridge Street, on the property formerly occupied by New England Log Homes.

“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.”

A 2001 fire leveled the dipping tanks that were the source of the groundwater contamination at the former New England Log Homes site on Bridge Street.

“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.” 

At a March 19 meeting, former Great Barrington resident Elizabeth Orenstein urged the Great Barrington Zoning Board of Appeals to consider the changes to the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire plan ‘significant.’ Photo: Terry Cowgill

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.”

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8 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Helen Silver says:

    We could have had 45 units of affordable housing, 80 units of senior housing, and a permanently cleaned up site at no further cost to local taxpayers. But the ZBA thinks it’s a better idea to push the affordable housing closer to the wastewater treatment plant without the protective berm, and leave the rest of the site with only a temporary clean-up solution and no senior housing.

    And the complainers would rather the whole thing fall apart, no housing at all, and leave toxic soil at ground level to become airborne every time the wind blows, in the hopes that there is a perfect solution that the taxpayers will pay for sometime in the future.

    Foolishness all around. Beyond foolishness given our need for both types of housing. Almost cruel. How many members of the ZBA are in need of housing?

  2. Dan says:

    Mr. McAlister should not have a voice here, no less be raising motions for vote on it. As one directly affected by the property’s development and also one that is not foreign to the biz, he must recuse and put a cork in it. Legal bills anyone..
    Wake up! treating an application to improve a forlorn and dirty property must go to the back of the line, re-apply, because of berms, really?? The S…plant isn’t moving. If the ZBA can’t stomach anyone living there, then the parcel must be rezoned immediately. Otherwise support the proposal or get out of the way. No developer would build a house if they think no one will buy it; even with the state kicking in. Those speaking for the Town are making unreasonable demands:
    “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.” really? One has to believe that must be a misquote.
    How’s that GE clean up going?

  3. Mickey Friedman says:

    Once again, with a gigantic bundle of good intentions, town officials have done nothing to help remediate the highly toxic PCP and dioxin waste site a few blocks from the center of our town. For decades we allowed our schoolchildren to learn across the street from toxic soil and dust. The Town did nothing, then realized with the bankruptcy of New England Log Homes, the extraordinary liability whoever took over the property would face. Thankfully, the CDC spared the taxpayers and assumed responsibility, and has tried for years and years to do something about it. Are there lovelier places for affordable housing? Yes, but who on the Hill will donate the space? Should poor people live in the kinds of houses the critics live in, yes indeed. Having lived on Rosseter Street for 27 years amidst the less than wealthy, those who need affordable housing are resourceful, dignified and can live with a berm or two until the financially well-endowed lend us your houses. From what I’ve witnessed, all the folks who say no to the CDC have yet to provide an alternate and financially viable plan to deal with the contamination. How about you offer a real, practicable alternative? When will we ensure the contamination is contained if we keep saying no to the CDC?

  4. Wendy T. Linscott says:

    I echo Dan’s sentiments. Here’s to the CDC and to Tim Geller and the admirable commitment to affordable housing that has enabled the CDC to hang in while being confronted with roadblock and after roadblock. Frankly, the idea of living within an easy walk of Main Street, with greenery around and the river flowing by, “out of sight” but hardly out of reach, sounds pretty nice to me. Sure beats paying $300,000+ for a condo that pratically hangs out over Bridge Street with no privacy and no front yard!
    And kudos to Tim and crew for tackling such a contaminated site. Meanwhile, who wants to discuss the old Getty station or Reid’s Cleaners?

  5. Stephen Cohen says:

    Enough is enough, the perfect is often the enemy of the practical. How many more years with no affordable housing and toxic soil? The CDC has given its all, its time or the ZBA to get on board and support them.

  6. Ron Blumenthal says:

    The ZBA was right to reject this plan; thank you ZBA. The CDC is right that we need housing; thank you Tim Geller and CDC. And it’s right to fix this environmental disaster for the entire town.

    But the design is fatally flawed, and the people of town see that.

    The overall concept continues to minimize the amount of land used for subsidized housing, while saving ‘the good stuff’ for commercial development. And yet, no developer has bit at this in over 10 years – they don’t like the looks of it either.

    It’s time for CDC to drop the idea of some dubious future profit. What is wrong with a generous and healthy housing plan, with real green space for residents? CDC has a $15M grant from the state for exactly that.

    I urge the CDC to reach out and work with others to fix this. 100 Bridge St. can and should be right for GB – something we can all be proud of, instead of regret.

    Thank you,

    Ron Blumenthal

    1. Helen says:

      The “people of this town” see no such thing and please stop speaking for the people of this town. YOU don’t like this plan and YOU think the CDC can create affordable housing with spacious yards with no need to bring in funds by developing the rest of the property. But you haven’t been working on this for 20 years, the CDC has.

      We need that housing. I need that housing. Maybe you can afford housing prices in GB. I can’t.

      Is it perfect? Of course not. Sometimes good enough has to be good enough.

      1. Robert says:

        Helen, The people of the town attended ZBA. And the ZBA are people, for that matter.

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