|North Adams Council Opposition to Sale Leaves Land in Limbo|
|By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff|
02:01AM / Wednesday, February 26, 2020
|Tuesday's City Council meeting occasionally turned heated as councilors debated several items on the agenda.|
The former Jarisch Paper Box Co. was torn down by the city in 2003. The mayor's request to put it out for an RFP was met with opposition on Tuesday.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A reduced City Council has apparently rejected the administration's proposal to dispose of a vacant lot on American Legion Drive.
In a 4-2 vote against referring the request to declare the former Jarisch Paper Box Co. surplus to the General Government Committee, the council left the disposal of the land in limbo for the moment.
"This is a prime location in downtown North Adams," said City Councilor Marie T. Harpin. "No, it's not a huge lot, but it's something that we might be able to use as possibly just the police station or just possibly as the fire station. But it's something that we have to consider down the road as such as a public safety building ... so until that issue is resolved, I will not be supporting selling this parcel."
Mayor Thomas Bernard had brought an order to declare the property as surplus two weeks so a request for proposals could be solicited but delayed it until this week to seek further information.
The interested party in the land was Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. Executive Director Amber Besaw, during public comments at the beginning of the meeting, had spoken about her hopes that the community would be supportive of the nonprofit agency's desire to have its own home.
Three of the nine councilors removed themselves from discussion because of their involvement with NBCC. Both Jessica Sweeney and Benjamin Lamb are on the NBCC board of directors and left council chambers during the debate; Keith Bona felt he needed to abstain after learning NBCC was interested in the property because he has done work for the nonprofit agency.
The box-maker's factory was demolished in 2003 after the city took the land. It has sat fallow ever since. Afterward, the mayor said the city was being "responsive to an opportunity" but that didn't mean any one entity would be guaranteed the site.
"You make the surplus declaration, you put out the [request for proposals], part of what I have done is I've had a team look at these and make a recommendation," he said, similar to what's done with Community Development Block Grants. "Even if I'm aware of a particular party's interest, I'm still the one bringing it for a recommendation. I was getting a level of vetting through staff."
Councilors went out of their way to say they had no problems with the NBCC, a well known and respected agency involved with numerous initiatives, but rather the idea of putting out a request for proposals for a prominent property without any long-term plans on how it could be used.
"It was already evident to multiple members of the community that there was the appearance that this was coming to council for the benefit of a specific and beloved organization," said Councilor Jason LaForest. "This is not an issue for the city or for the organization that has a strong interest in in this property were this to go through the RFP competitive process. No accusations here."
However, he said, the problem was "plan and process" and he was not satisfied that the administration had a long-term plan for 100 or so properties under its control, especially for one "in the heart of downtown."
LaForest was unhappy that he had asked two weeks ago for a list of properties owned by the city for prospective disposal and only received it minutes before the meeting began. And also that the council had not received a six-year capital outlay as required by city charter.
"What there is not is a plan. There's no indication what we're going to do with any of these properties," he said. "What we're going to do with our downtown."
Bernard, after the meeting, said the Office of Community Development and the Community Development Committee are working on the plan. The list of properties for disposition was "a little premature," he said, because it would coming through the committee to identify the plan.
Councilor Wayne Wilkinson pushed back on the idea that the lot between the Brien Center and the Oasis Plaza could be used for a new public safety building. He said the ad hoc committee he had been on did not see that land as viable.
Harpin, who also was on the committee, demurred that the "casual conversations" had not ruled the property out but Wilkinson said they were not casual but extensive research that had included the mayor, police and fire chiefs, and had evaluated several properties. The American Legion Drive land, he said, had been ruled out because it was not big enough.
Councilor Lisa Blackmer expressed her frustration that attempts to divest the city of excess property — a goal shared by the last administration — would come to naught if they couldn't agree.
"We've got a lot of property. If we're going to have a fight over every piece of land that we want to put up, every project that we want to do, we're not going to get anywhere," she said. The city needs to replenish its land sale account and it makes a bad impression on potential buyers, she continued. "They're going to say, 'why do I want to do that? Why do I want to put myself through that?"
Blackmer also commented on the personal involvement of councilors with potential bidders, noting it was to be expected in a small area but a possible problem that could continue in the future. A recent bid on Sullivan School, for example, had both Lamb and Bona sitting out.
Bernard acknowledged that it's challenging in a community where a lot of different people have different connections. "I'm a former board member of the coalition myself," he said later. "But that doesn't influence the decision other than knowing that this is a conversation that's almost 30 years old of a permanent home for this organization that does such critical work."
Harpin said her concern continued to be locations for a public safety building. The city is currently under a U.S. Department of Justice edict to resolve the handicapped accessibility issues at the 60-year-old structure. Bernard said there are short-term resolutions and that he would again be bringing the Public Safety Committee through the building in the spring to continue to press home the need of a new one.
With Bona, Lamb and Sweeney abstaining or absent, the vote was Blackmer and Council President Paul Hopkins in the affirmative to refer to General Government and Harpin, LaForest, Robert Moulton Jr. and Wilkinson voting against.
In other business, the council:
• Saw the swearing in of Patrol Officers Robert Barrett, Dana Clement, Taylor Kline, Sakan Sadowsky and John Brack, and firefighter Ryan Richards; and the promotion of Brad Vivori from detective to police sergeant.
• Approved the appointment of Charles Felix Jr. to the North Adams Historical Commission for a term to expire Jan. 2, 2023, and the reappointment of Shaun Dougherty to the North Adams Airport Commission for a term to expire March 1, 2023.
• Accepted the donation of space at Greylock Works valued at $3,500 to host the city's 125th anniversary on Aug. 24-25.
• Referred information requested on the physical condition of the Hoosac Mill to the Public Safety Committee with a report to return at the second meeting in March.
• Referred a recommendation from the Traffic Commission to install a stop sign at the intersection of Miner and East Main streets to the Public Safety Committee.
• Adopted the state Berkshire Scenic Mountain Act, which will allows the city to put steps in place to protect its mountains and watersheds.
• Heard a presentation from Viviana Dorfman, a student at Technical University in Berlin who is doing her bachelor thesis on art and culture in redevelopment with North Adams as her case study.