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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

BRPC Not Attacking NA Project, Says Nathaniel Karns

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Thursday, August 11, 2005

Pittsfield – Questions raised about a proposed Nigro Development LLC project sited in North Adams are not meant as an attack on the proposal but is business as usual for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns during an Aug. 11 telephone interview.

The comments and questions have rankled North Adams Mayor John Barrett III. Barrett has termed a BRPC report and a letter from Adams Town Administrator William Ketcham sent to the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act entity “sneak attacks” and has vowed to fight for the estimated $12 million to $15 million proposal.

"Consistent Role"

“We have a consistent role in projects requiring a MEPA review,” Karns said. “We are not treating North Adams any better or any worse than any other community.”

Karns was responding to an Aug. 10 media request for comment about the BRPC report. Karns was not available for comment on Aug. 10.

Whether the project requires a sewer extension or connection permit to link to the Adams wastewater treatment plant before development proceeds is a valid question, Karns said.

“That needs to be clarified,” he said. “If it needs one, it needs one and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

Barrett said that Karns sewer concerns "overstepped" the BRPC role as it applies to MEPA.

"That is out of the scope of the MEPA review," Barrett said.

"Serious, Serious Questions"

Barrett has questioned whether conflict of interest exists because Karns is married to Adams Community Development Director Donna Cesan. Ketcham has said that he does not believe Cesan and Karns influenced each other about the public comments.

Karns said that he would not discuss situations that he deemed “personal.” Karns did say that conversations about town concerns occurred with Ketcham.

“Almost all my conversations were with Bill Ketcham, not with Donna,” he said.

Barrett said that Karns speaking to Ketcham about project concerns while failing to communicate any questions or concerns to city officials prior to submitting the July 27 report demonstrates questionable behavior.

"Why was [Karns]in conversation with Bill Ketcham, who employs [Karns] wife, and never, never contacted any official of the City of North Adams?" Barrett said. "I have serious, serious questions about this and if this is how other communities are treated, they should be up in arms."

The BRPC and Ketcham submitted separate documents to MEPA officials as part of an Environmental Notification Form [ENF] public comment period. The commission document, called a “clearinghouse review report,” poses numerous environmental impact questions and also asks for traffic analysis of several city and town intersections, while Ketcham’s letter points to town concerns about wastewater issues. The proposed project would require a connection to the town wastewater treatment plant under the current design plan as well as an amendment to an existing wastewater agreement between the town and the city, Ketcham has said. Ketcham's letter also articulated a belief that the proposed development would undermine the town’s downtown revitalization efforts.

Both communications question whether the proposal, which includes plans for a restaurant, a home improvement store and garden center, a bank and a parking lot to be erected on a 21-acre Route 8 site, is an appropriate development use of the property.

Traffic, Then and Now

Karns said that project consultants working for Nigro stated that traffic studies involving the proposed project were not complete during a previous project scoping session.

Karns said that a complete traffic study should review the impacts of traffic along Route 8 to the north and south of the proposed development site. Attention should also be paid to a signal-controlled intersection immediately south of the proposed project at a partially occupied plaza owned by the Connecticut-based Starwood Ceruzzi development company.

Barrett reiterated previous comments that when the region was home to companies such as the Sprague Electric Co., Curtis Fine Papers, Inc., W.R. Grace Co., and a host of businesses including a Curran Highway-based department store and a supermarket, significant traffic flowed north and south on a daily basis.

"How did all that traffic work? Mr. Karns wasn't around back when all this was happening," Barrett said. "If [Karns] wants to do a traffic or truck study, he better know that nearly all the trucks that come through North Adams come from Adams."

"Thorough" vs. "Obstructionist"

The concerns broached in the documents are likely to be examined during an Environmental Impact Review, which was set to occur whether ENF public comments were received or not, Briony Angus of MEPA said on Aug. 10. Angus said that public comments are valued by MEPA because of the insights the remarks offer.

Karns said that the BRPC report should not be construed as an attempt to thwart the project. The BRPC is routinely involved in projects of this size, no matter where they are sited, he said.

“The role that we play [in these situations] is ‘what are the questions that the EIR needs to answer,’ and it’s better to get it done at this point rather than later on,” Karns said. “We feel that it’s better to be thorough now.”

Barrett said that Karns and Adams town officials are acting in an "obstructionist" manner.

"The town officials and Karns are acting as obstructionists," he said. "[Karns] has raised as many issues as possible to make this project difficult. If they had all these questions, why did they not once come to the city with it? Let them come to me with their questions, and I will talk to them in a public forum. I will answer their questions."

Karns said that the EIR reviews result in draft documents that also include public comment periods. In some cases, drafts become final documents, in other situations, additional reviews occur prior to finalizing the documents. Each subsequent review and report has an accompanying public comment period of 30 days, and questions or concerns could be posed during any of the process steps, he said.

Environmental impact reviews identify issues including wetlands concerns, and offer development alternatives or “the less desirable but typical” mitigation solutions, Karns said.

“Mitigation is usually more costly and there’s usually a two-to-one ratio because new wetlands do not function as well as old wetlands,” Karns said.

The two-to-one formula generally means that twice the mitigation [re-creation of a wetlands] is required to compensate disturbed wetlands. For example, if 1,000 feet of wetlands is disturbed due to development, mitigation efforts would likely cover 2,000 feet, he said, and emphasized that the example was just that, an example and not a hard and fast rule.

The 10 pages that complete the commission clearinghouse report are not unusual, Karns said.

“Projects of this magnitude do generate six, eight or 10 page reports,” he said.

No Regulatory Authority

Neither MEPA nor the BRPC are regulatory, or permitting, agencies, but are review entities, Karns said.

“We are not a regulatory agency at all,” he said. “Our role is to be sure the consultant work is complete and accurate, and have the questions answered. We’ve had consultants tell us that they appreciate our comments.”

The commission does not condemn or condone overall projects, Karns said.

“Our role is to determine what the effects [of development] may be, and responsible developers will work to handle the effects,” he said.

Barrett did find a point of agreement with Karns.

"He's right about that, they are not a regulatory agency," Barrett said. "And there is something very wrong here."

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush123@adelphia.net or at 802-823-9367.
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