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The entrance to the defunct mall off the Connector Road in Lanesborough. The Baker Hill Road District still has charge over the Routes 7 & 8 connector.

Baker Hill Road District Defends Its Function, Post-Mall

By Joe DurwiniBerkshires Staff
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The board of the Baker Hill Road District holds an informational meeting on Zoom last week to answer questions swirling around on social media.

LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Three years after the closure of the mall that necessitated its creation, representatives of the Baker Hill Road District say the little-known quasi-public authority is still a needed entity that provides considerable revenue to the town.

Partly in response to a recent dialogue erupting in a local Facebook group, the district's board members held an informational Q&A this week with several curious residents in attendance, part of a new effort they're launching at "community engagement."

"There's a lot to the road district that I think just generally isn't known because until 2020, people just didn't care about the road district," said Mark Siegars, an attorney for the district who provided most of the information at Thursday's session. "Now that we have a new out-of-state owner and a local real estate agent representing him, we now are in public view."

The history of the Baker Hill Road District dates back to 1989, Siegars explained, and was created when the town filed a home rule petition in the Legislature. Under the legislation, the district owns and is responsible for maintaining the Route 7-8 Connector Road (formerly Berkshire Mall Road). 

"The fundamental reason the Road District still exists is to take care of the road," said Siegars, who said the current structure offers far more benefit to the town than if it the connecting road were to come under the umbrella of the state Department of Transportation.

The district has the authority to tax the property owners within it, then pays the town of Lanesborough. Currently, Siegars says, that amounts to at least $400,000 in payments to Lanesborough from the district.

Another, newer aspect of the district's mission is its foray into economic development of the property. In 2018, its legislation was amended to add this function, following the mall's chaotic spiral to closure. Since that time, it has worked with Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to develop a study for its reuse, and advanced a proposal to modify the zoning around the property, to be voted on at annual town meeting on June 8. The uses which would be permitted under the revised zoning include the five options deemed most viable for the vacant complex: a destination sports facility; a family entertainment resort destination; a training and technology facility; senior care and transitional living; or a green agricultural facility.

"What really motivated the district and the town to work together is that, we don't want the mall building to become another GE, where the building falls down, there's nobody there, there's crime," said Siegars. "The ultimate aim is to assist the town of Lanesborough by increasing the value of that real estate, to increase the tax base in that real estate."

Interest in staging the property for new opportunities is far from a new one for the district, Siegars said, as part of the impetus for forming it came when Pyramid Management Group approached Lanesborough in the late 1980s about rezoning for a potential hotel and convention center it sought to build.

"They saw the writing on the wall," he observed.

"The Road District has from the beginning moved forward with the idea of repurposing the property," Siegars told attendees. "Initially, we had a partner in Pyramid. Then it turned to absentee landlords."

Siegars indicated matters with the mall building's ownership have not improved since its recent sale, from Michael Kohan to Vijayakumar Vemulpalli, Durga Property Holdings LLC, in 2019.

"He doesn't care about us, he doesn't care about our town," Siegars said of a meeting with said owner the week before.

This poses a particular problem for the other major property owner on the site, Target, which owns its building as a condominium (Regal Cinemas, the only other remaining commercial entity, leases it space from the mall owner).

"Target has had to spend money to repair everything the mall owns in order to stay open," Siegars said, who said that another current goal of the district is to separate water access, and it is looking to have an engineer study the options.

Only a few members of the public attended the informational Zoom session, posing questions in addition to those sent in advance, which the presentation was aimed at addressing. Some Lanesborough residents may not have been able to view the meeting in real time, as access required a passcode not published with the meeting link on the town's website. The session was recorded to be made available for future broadcast.

Among those in attendance was Jen Weber, who questioned whether the district was up to date on its payments to the town, giving voice to rumors that have circulated indicating it was not. Siegars said all payments to Lanesborough are current, and that this can be verified at any time by the town accountant.

However, if late tax payments to the district from the mall's owner don't materialize soon, the district can't remain solvent only on what it's receiving from Target, and will need to begin dipping into its $1.2 million stabilization fund soon to make up the difference as early as this September. If that situation were to continue, the fund will be depleted by 2027.

Nancy Spencer, a resident who has been vocal in questioning the district's continued existence on social media, expressed continued concerns about a lack of information available to the public.

"What bothers me most is the lack of transparency," Spencer told them, indicating that she's had a difficult time finding items like meeting agendas and minutes.

Chairman Bill Prendergast responded that a website with minutes, agendas and other documents is forthcoming, as part of the new effort at public outreach.

"It should have been in place a long time ago," Spencer replied.

"The truth of the matter is, while things were running smooth, nobody was really interested," Prendergast answered back. "Now that we're hitting harder times, now that people are complaining a little bit, and there are people in positions regarding the mall that are able to start throwing innuendos out ... all of that has caused us to do start this process."

Tags: Berkshire Mall,   

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Lanesborough Planner Pays Penalty for Conflict-of-Interest Violation

LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Lanesborough Economic Development Committee Chair and Planning Board member Barbara Davis-Hassan paid a $30,000 penalty for violating the state's conflict of interest law.
The State Ethics Commission has issued a final decision and order allowing a joint motion to dismiss and approving a disposition agreement in which Davis-Hassan admits to violating the conflict of interest law by participating as a Planning Board member in a proposal to rezone the Berkshire Mall while she privately had an exclusive marketing agreement to sell the property, by representing the mall's owner in local tax and infrastructure matters, and by participating as a Planning Board member in a proposal to rezone a second property while privately serving as its listing agent.
The commission accepted Davis-Hassan's payment of a $30,000 civil penalty and dismissed the adjudicatory proceeding against her.
Davis-Hassan, who owns and operates Barb Hassan Realty, had an exclusive marketing agreement to lease space in or sell the Berkshire Mall when she participated as a Planning Board member in a proposal to rezone the mall property to facilitate redevelopment. After Lanesborough town meeting approved the rezoning, the mall sold in July 2022 for $8 million and Davis-Hassan received a $240,000 commission on the sale.
Through these actions as a Planning Board member, Davis-Hassan violated the conflict of interest law's prohibition against public employees participating officially in matters in which they or their business have a financial interest. In addition to her actions concerning the mall property, Davis-Hassan also violated this prohibition in 2020, when she participated as a Planning Board member in discussing a proposal to rezone a Williamstown Road property for which she was the listing agent. That property later sold for $250,000, and Davis-Hassan received a $25,000 commission on the sale.
The conflict of interest law also prohibits municipal employees from acting as agent for anyone other than the municipality in connection with matters in which the municipality is a party or has a direct and substantial interest. Davis-Hassan violated this prohibition by representing Berkshire Mall owner Durga Property Holdings Inc. in Lanesborough-related matters in 2019 and 2020. 
During this time, Davis-Hassan appeared on Durga's behalf before the Baker Hill Road District (BHRD), an entity that assesses and collects taxes on properties within the district for road maintenance and municipal services. 
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