Planning Board to Look at Ordinance Change
Planners are concerned that once-commercial properties are now useless because of a two-year time limit.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Planning Board will work on a solution to a vexing issue that's left some properties in limbo around the city.
The board next month will begin discussions on changing an ordinance that limits buildings that were grandfathered under zoning to a vacancy of no more than two years before they revert to the current zoning, which is often residential.
"There are several properties in this city that have defaulted on that status and are nonconforming but no longer in continuous use. Therefore they are kind of in a state of limbo," said Chairman Michael Leary on Monday night. "I want to generate a discussion at the next meeting to see if there are options that we can recommend to the City Council to amend ordinances so we can get those properties out of limbo and help the owners of those properties."
The issues came up earlier this year when the board sought an opinion from the city solicitor as to the fate of the West End Market. The building had been under renovation but owner Barry Garton was running into a two-year deadline that would revert the commercial building to residential use. The solicitor found the renovation could be determined a "substantial" enough use to allow the board to extend his special permit.
Planning Board member Wayne Wilkinson said the most blatant example of the problem is the former NAPA auto parts store on State Road.
"Technically, the building is rendered useless," said Wilkinson. "The only use that's allowed there is residential; for someone to spend the amount of money to develop that proerpty for residential ... I don't even know if you could because of the size of the lot.
"Eventually, it will be taken by the city for back taxes and there will be nothing left at that time but to demolish it."
One option the board will look at is removing the section that refers to a nonconforming structure being "abandoned or discontinued."
The ordinance states: (Section 12, Part 2) Abandonment of a nonconforming use: A nonconforming use which has been abandoned or discontinued for a period of more than two (2) years or has been replaced by a conforming use shall lose the protection set forth above in Section 12.1. (Ord. of 8-14-1990, § 1)
Building Inspector William Meranti said an ordinance change could run into state law.
"We're an old city ... we have some of these properties that seem like they're in neighborhoods but they're commercial, storefront-type properties that have absolutely no use," said Building Inspector William Meranti, who added there is no process for reviving the nonconforming use.
Meranti said changes may run into the state's 40A zoning but "there could be avenues we can take."
The meeting was a continuation of last week's regular Planning Board meeting, which was cut short when Planner Kyle Hanlon fell ill and was taken to the hospital. Hanlon was in attendance last night and said he was feeling much better.
In other business, the board approved:
• The move of pet supplies store Bark 'N Cat from Eagle Street to 28 Holden St. Owner Christa Abel said the business is outgrowing the space it currently occupies with Persnickety toys; she expects to open in late September.
• The development of six artists studio/residential lofts in the Blackinton Mill
• The relocation of J Star Gymnastics to 69 Union St., part of an overall redevelopment of the former automobile dealership by Scarafoni & Associates. Two of the buildings on the property are slated for demolition beginning this week.
• Signage for Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts presented by Mick Callahan of Callahan Signs. The signage for the new location for the campus police in what was the Brewer Perkins building at 277 Ashland St. is in line with a re-identification plan for the college. There will also be signage to aid motorists and others in locating departments during the ongoing construction on campus.
• Snoford LLC for property at 76 Union St. was postponed to September at the request of the applicant.
• The reaffirmation the community development plan, which has changed little over the decades. The plan is reaffirmed annually; Leary anticipated that the document will change to align with the master plan currently being formulated.
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Planning Board Meeting Cut Short By Illness
Planners Joanne Derose, Wayne Wilkinson and Paul Senecal with a rendering of the west side of the Blackinton Mill.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Planning Board's Monday meeting was cut short after one its members became ill.
Planner Kyle Hanlon became ill and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. With Planners Joseph Gniadek, Paul Hopkins and Donald Keagan absent, it was determined that a quorum was not present and the meeting was ended after 15 minutes.
Chairman Michael Leary, left, and Planners Kyle Hanlon and Brian Miksic listen to David Moresi, at left. Shortly afterward, Hanlon excused himself.
The board had just wrapped up a public hearing on an application for a special permit for residential units in the Blackinton Mill when Hanlon excused himself. David Moresi of Moresi Associates, who was representing Magid Mill LLC in the hearing and is also a paramedic, was called into the hallway to assess Hanlon and an ambulance was called to City Hall.
Prior to that, Moresi had been presenting a proposal for six 1,000-square-foot loft/studio units in the Massachusetts Avenue mill. Moresi said the artists lofts, the only residential spaces allowed in an industrial zone, are the second phase in the redevelopment of the historic mill.
"We have to basically market this toward an artist clientele in this particular zoning," he said. "With the Williamstown Theatre being there, with another entity we're in discussions with, it ties in well."
Williamstown Theatre Festival set up its production facilities in the mill earlier this spring. Moresi said since April, "just north of $500,000" has been invested in the building.
Planner Wayne Wilkinson asked if the exterior and landscaping will be completed before the lofts are. Moresi said it would be done in tandem but the west side of the building is dependent on the owners reaching a deal on city-owned land abutting the property.
Nor would the development of the units be dependent on purchase agreements since they will be rentals, he said. "We get a lot of calls, believe it or not, from people looking to rent studio space."
He did caution that while the owners were eager to start, they were cautious businessmen.
"They are ready to move forward ... obviously, the global economy, the national economy plays a big role as it does in any significant development project," Moresi said. "Obviously, the news over the past few days (in the stock market) makes us all step back a bit but they're pretty excited."
Also postponed was an application by Snoford LLC for a special permit to operate a package store, by request; a hearing on a special permit for Bark-N-Cat to move from Eagle Street to 28 Holden St.; and a hearing on a special permit for J Star Gymnastics to operate at 69 Union St.
Editors' Note: all the cases were approved at the rescheduled meeting the following week.
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Committee Debates School Project Direction
The School Building Committee debated options for the school project on Wednesday night.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — School officials and the School Building Committee are hashing out an educational strategy that will be financially and politically palatable to voters.
The easiest and cheapest solution is to build or renovate one school; the more difficult, convincing skeptical taxpayers on the need to pass a debt-exclusion override to build or renovate two schools. More than a few at the meeting thought that would be an uphill battle after the recent defeat of a Proposition 2 1/2 override that would have prevented school budget cuts.
School Building Committee member Nancy Ziter, the city's business manager, summed it up: "Are we ready to fight the fight for two buildings?"
The city is looking to resolve the educational needs of 620 students, a number approved by the Massachusetts School Building Authority and based on projected enrollment, the closure of Conte Middle School and the reconfiguration of grades into K-7 and 8-12.
The project, however, has been at a low boil since parents at Sullivan School objected vociferously to the idea of shuttering the 50-year-old hillside structure in favor of renovating Conte as a new K-7 building.
Meeting on Wednesday night, school and city officials failed to come to a consensus on how to proceed despite the already busted timeframe.
"Anymore delay for the MSBA is not a good thing," said Mel Overmoyer, principal with consultant Strategic Building Solutions, who facilitated the meeting. "They are already impatient with us. We have to put to them a new time line and we have to stick with it."
The nearly century-old Conte had been off the radar until Margo Jones Architects began a review of the school district's buildings. They determined that Conte's architecture would fit the grade-clustering concept well and would be cheaper to renovate at $24 million.
Mel Overmoyer of SBS counts votes as attendees deliberated on school options.
Sullivan parents, however, objected when it became apparent Conte would replace Sullivan, resulting in moving the their children to the downtown location.
Renovating or adding on to the multitiered Sullivan is considered impractical and building a new school on the current site or by taking over nearby Kemp Park would cost around $31 million. Some of the higher cost is because of the significant grading and site preparation (which would not be covered by state reimbursement) and for moving the children off-site during construction. Relocating the building to Kemp Park would mean the loss of the ballfield there and a prominent three-story building in the very residential area.
The group did agree on two things: There was support and need for a new or renovated Greylock School and there was no support for 620-pupil school.
But they were stuck on whether to pursue a two-school solution — one that the MSBA has not clearly stated it would support — or do one school, with the goal of doing a second in the future.
Committee member Keith Bona was concerned that the city was gambling with a two-school solution that the MSBA might not reimburse and that taxpayers wouldn't support.
The anticipated cost to the city would add about $70 to the average tax bill, said the city councilor. "When I hear that $70, I know that's just one part of what people are going to get hit with."
Doing one school, on the other hand, would not require a debt-exclusion vote if it did not raise taxes above the levy limit. The city is coming to the end of its debt obligations for the construction at Drury High School and Brayton Elementary, neither of which required votes.
"If we do one school, say $6 million to $8 million, with the debt falling off Drury and Brayton while this project is being completed, that bond is absorbed into the budget," said Mayor Richard Alcombright. "The council approves it."
If the city went with one school project, likely Greylock, it could do some repairs at Sullivan in the meantime, said the mayor.
Building Inspector William Meranti, a member of the School Building Committee, warned that any significant repairs would trigger the Americans With Disabilities Act and force the city to spend far more in making the building handicapped accessible.
Building Committee members agreed to return the second week in August to allow some of its newest members to absorb the information provided at Wednesday's meeting.
"We have to get off this fence and say we want something," said committee member Ronald Superneau, who served for more than three decades on the School Committee. "If you're really concerned about something here, bite the bullet."
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Water System Plan Identifies $20M in Repairs, Upgrades
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Public Services Committee on Wednesday reviewed a 20-year capital plan to address the city's aging water system.
The $20 million "wish list" was created by Tighe & Bond with a $10,000 grant through the federal Drinking Water Act. The funds ($7,500 with a $2,500 match by the city) was awarded by the state Department of Environmental Protection in December.
"When I was hired, the mayor made it clear what he wanted to achieve," said Public Services Superintendent Timothy Lescarbeau, who was placed in charge of the DPW last fall. "He wanted to know how bad the infrastructure was in North Adams."
Underneath the freshly paved roads are "time bombs" of crumbling water and sewer pipes, he told the committee, as he and Mayor Richard Alcombright ticked off issues the DPW has been dealing with just since the federal streetscape project has been ending.
On Massachusetts Avenue alone, the city's had to dig up the new road six times since last fall to deal with water main breaks. A 24-inch water main stamped 1882 was uncovered and Lescarbeau searched the National Archives to find a schematic for a gate valve made by a company out of business for a century so R.I. Baker could replicate it. Digging to clean a sewer break on Church Street uncovered old wooden telephone boxes and a 100-year-old gas main that has to be replaced.
|Thomas LeCourt, a project engineer with Tighe & Bond, takes the Public Services Committee through a summary of the water system capital plan the engineering firm recently completed.|
Ten percent of the water lines are at least a century old; some 200 hydrants aren't working.
Lescarbeau, who ran the water filtration plant for United Water until the city took it over last fall, said the grant allowed the city take its first step in the capital planning process.
Alcombright said the plan will become part of a 10-year capital plan that will also look at other infrastructure, such as the police and fire stations and the sewers.
"The goal is to put together a high-level planning document," said Thomas D. LeCourt, Tighe project engineer who, with Vice President Dana Haff, explained the findings and recommendations. "It's really a wish list ... There's nothing in this report that obligates you to do anything. We have a schedule with the projects and a timeline but there's nothing saying you have to follow this schedule."
The survey looked at six areas — source, treatment, storage, pumping, distribution, and other — and identified priorities and expected costs.
Among the top priorities is the deteriorating aqueduct linking the Notch and Mount Williams reservoirs. The concrete structure installed in 1917 crosses a ravine. While repairs have been made on it, Alcombright said at least one of the pylons is more rebar than concrete.
The aqueduct and dam improvements are estimated to cost $3.5 million.
Also on the list were pump replacements, security improvements at the reservoir and filtration plant; a new, larger storage tank at Upper East Main; tank resealing; and replacements of meters, valve, pipes and hydrants. The plan recommends setting program goals and determining funding.
"This gives us a snapshot of what the priorities are going to be," Alcomright said of the plan, which committee members David Bond, David Lamarre and Keith Bona voted to recommend to the City Council. "I don't think there was anything shocking in there. We kind of knew what it was, but it puts it all on one place."
LeCourt said the some of the projects could be funded in part by grants or, more likely, through SRF funds. The city's plan will be submitted to the state to help more federal money flow into the state revolving fund.
"The more need they can document that Massachusetts water systems have, the more money they'll be able to get to allocate to communities," said LeCourt. "They're looking for hard numbers that they can use to improve their position to get more money."
But the city would also have to look at bonding or water rates, which would push the burden onto water users.
Alcombright said he was interested in taking the water fees, which currently flow into the general fund, and placing them into an enterprise account. That would limit the use of the funds to water system-related issues only, allowing a reserve to build up toward maintenance and repairs. A number of municipalities use such accounts, including Adams and Williamstown.
"A lot our capital plan will be deferred until we can find money," said the mayor, adding that having the plan in place will be critical to attaining those funds.
Lescarbeau said the repairs — from water breaks to hydrant repairs — will keep going, plan or not.
"I'm going to do what I can to chip away at a lot of this stuff," he said. "I'm not going to wait for a capital plan. If I have the stuff available, I'll take care of it. That's what I was hired for."
The survey will be presented to the City Council at its first meeting in August.
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North Adams Setting Out Future Goals
A range of city residents — from natives to newcomers — participated in Monday's master planning process at All Saints Episcopal Church.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Some 40 residents came together on Monday night to brainstorm priorities and set goals to transform the former mill city into a modern, forward-thinking community.
Among the priorities identified were capitalizing on the city's history and natural resources; sustaining and encouraging the local arts community; updating the city's 50-year-old zoning; reviving the Hoosic River; supporing local agriculture and community gardens; making the city more accessible and pedestrian friendly; improving signage; promoting healthy lifestyles and preserving the hospital; changing its mill-town attitude; pursuing green ideas and technology; and holding landlords and property owners accountable for blight.
Participants discussed the city's needs then broke into groups to determine priorities in categories ranging from health to natural resources to energy.
It's the first time in decades that North Adams has developed a long-range blueprint; it will be used to guide the city over the next 20 to 30 years. And this time, it's taking into consideration a far wider variety of resources and more progressive goals.
"I think people know this planning process was a passion of mine as I came into office and even beforehand," said Mayor Richard Alcombright, who participated in the visioning session along with City Councilors Keith Bona, David Lamarre and Lisa Blackmer, among others. "It's been 40-plus years since the city had a formal document that kind cast it's future out there. ...
"I think this is really important and I'm really glad we have such a great representation here tonight."
The master planning process is being done in conjunction with Sustainable Berkshires, an updated countywide plan being led by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. Over the next three years, the city and Great Barrington will follow closely the county plan's timeline and "piggyback" on its workshops.
"There is a better turnout here than for the entire region workshop, which is great," said BRPC senior planner Amy Kacala, who facilitated the meeting. "It speaks well for the city and how much interest there is behind this effort."
She said there is some truth to the saying that plans just gather dust but they can be effective if used.
"If everyone is aware what's in it and wants to see the things implemented that are in the plan, there's more support and momentum behind it to make sure things happen," said Kacala.
The planning started last year with the appointment of a steering committee representing a broad range of interests and built on a once-dormant Community Development Advisory Group. While the plan will be three years in the making, implementation of certain elements could begin as early as next year.
Several questioned the absence of education in the visioning process. Kacala said improvements in standardized scores and other benchmarks had lowered education as a priority but a number of participants said that education connected many of the goals and should be included.
While the groups mostly outlined broad goals, there were several specifics mentioned. For instance, Phil Sellers, a local potter and community activist, said his group thought the development of an artists' district and incentives for artists to buy homes here would spur growth.
Mayor Richard Alcombright, a believer in the planning process, sat in on the visioning session.
Michael Bedford, who attended last week's county session, said residents should think twice before sending money out of the city through big-box stores and national chains. "We need to feed our local enterprises with local money," he said.
Alcombright said a few things on the priority list are getting close: the city's just a couple steps away from being designated a state Green Community and a couple years away from having the most solar power per capita in the state. "We're working on those contracts right now," said the mayor.
But the city won't reach its goals overnight. "I think we got a strong start ... we need to know that the public sector moves very, very slowly," he said.
Residents will have more chances to comment as the process continues; information will be added to the city's website.
Steering Committee: Lisa Bassi, Jonathan Secor, John Greenbush, Donald Pecor, Steve Green, Joanne DeRose, Brian Miksic, Michael Nuvallie, Paul Hopkins, Alan Marden, Glenn Maloney, Michael Boland, Judith Grinnell, David Willette and Mayor Richard Alcombright.
North Adams Planning Priorities 2011
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