NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city owns more than 200 pieces of property, ranging from City Hall to the Windsor Mill to vacant lots taken in tax title.
The Community Development Office is creating a plan for how to deal with all the parcels spread throughout city, one of several priorities broached to the Community Development Committee last month.
"The main goal with presenting this item in this depth in detail, was to basically to gain input from the City Council and members of the public participating on these planning efforts and to see if there's anything that we are missing overlooked," explained Zachary Feury, project coordinator.
The meeting was held on the Zoom platform because of the restrictions set during the COVID-19 pandemic. Committee members Chairman Benjamin Lamb and Jessica Sweeney participated, as did fellow Councilors Lisa Blackmer, President Paul Hopkins and Marie T. Harpin, and Community Development Director Michael Nuvallie.
Feury categorized the properties as those that serve a municipal function such as the schools, Department of Public Works building and library; properties that generate revenue like the Windsor Mill and Western Gateway Heritage State Park; and non-functioning properties like vacant lots and commercial and residential parcels.
"It should be noted that functionless properties generate no revenue to the city," he said. "Additionally, they create significant cost to the city in the form of insurance, maintenance and and other costs. And furthermore, these properties are at risk of falling into disrepair and or requiring demolition. As such, it is in the interest of the city to move to a develop a strategic plan for the disposition of functionalist properties that accounts for the associated variables."
The proposal is to declare such "functionless" properties surplus and develop a strategic plan to dispose of them. Variables that have to be considered are size, zoning, topography, community needs and if the property was acquired with any conditions. The city can dispose of properties through auction, sale to abutters and requests for proposals.
Feury said conforming lots should be sold at auction, which would not require the council to declare them surplus, while nonconforming lots should be sold to abutters and would need to be declared surplus.
"Alternatively, request for proposals should be used for those parcels that were acquired via means other than the tax title process that are also conforming lots and are of considerable interest to the public," he said.
A more complicated case would be nine properties taken by tax title around Bracewell Avenue and River Street. Eight of the parcels are nonconforming; the bulk are in Residential 5 and several on River also allow business. Abutting parcels can be joined to create conforming lots with an eye to community needs in disposing of them preferably through a request for proposal.
"It should be noted, however, that in instances in which multiple city-owned properties to be made available for disposition are located in a single neighborhood, the city will conduct a neighborhood meeting to gain input from residents prior to issuing an RFP," Feury said.
He continued that it was important for the city to create a strategic plan for the "highest and best use" of these parcels and take the next in disposing of them. That should be done through communication between appropriate boards and the community to prioritize plans.
Lamb asked how the community needs in each area were determined. Feury said most had been identified over time through public conversations and the city staff's historical knowledge.
The presentation was largely informational but the committee thought it would be beneficial to repeat it for the full City Council. Lamb pointed that more people would be tuned in to council meeting than Community Development.
"I think that's a great idea ... I'd be curious to hear what other councilors think about this information," Sweeney said. " think it could be a really good larger conversation and, like you said, really great for the public to hear this, too, and see this information."
The committee also reviewed plans to add onto the 1981 Urban Renewal Plan and extend it through 2031.
The Redevelopment Authority has already seen this plan to extend the boundaries to include an 8-acre parcel south of the former Sons of Italy and two lots on the north end that are already owned by the Redevelopment Authority.
The current document would need to be amended to address a number of factors including developer goals and criteria, and approved by the Redevelopment Authority, City Council and Planning Board. The goal is to have a plan drafted by February 2021 and approved by March 2021.
"So as you can see, creating or amending and urban renewal plan is a significant amount of work," Feury said. "There are, however benefits, to such efforts, namely in an urban renewal plan allows municipalities greater flexibility and redeveloping targeted areas."
Hopkins asked if the plan could be terminated prior to the expiration date. Feury believed there was a process that would need City Council approval.
"I just wanted to make sure people understood we're not committing to a 10-year existence if we decide at some point, you know, five years from now that it's not needed anymore," said Hopkins, chairman of the Redevelopment Authority for many years.
Nuvallie said it made sense to align the Urban Renewal Plan time frame with the city's 2030 Vision Plan.
"It would make no sense to have a zone that we're trying to very aggressively redevelop and have that time period expired ... while at the same time, a great master plan is still in the works," he said.
Blackmer agreed, noting the city has working hard on the tools it needs for development, such as the master plan and updated zoning.
"I hadn't even thought about that, you know, having everything align makes a lot of sense," she said. "It's important to kind of keep this moving forward and go into the next step when we come out the other side of this pandemic."
Lamb responded that it was "a lot of different efforts finally coalescing and realizing how much synergy there is between plans and efforts that have either happened in the past or are finally happening now."
The committee voted to refer the Urban Renewal Plan proposal the City Council at the next available date.
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In Cautious Song, Early Birds Proclaim Vernal Awakening
By Tor HanseniBerkshires columnist
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