Pittsfield City Council nixes funds for environmental assessment of JB Paper site
PITTSFIELD — The former J.B. Paper Co. destroyed by fire last month will remain a pile of rubble.
The City Council Tuesday night rejected Mayor Linda M. Tyer's request for $25,000 toward an environmental assessment to determine how hazardous the material is and the cost to clean it up.
The council vote of 5-5 effectively killed the measure as a tie is as good as a defeat. Councilor Lisa Tully was absent from the 11-member panel. Tyer told The Eagle after the vote she wouldn't resubmit the request.
The mayor was seeking to restore money removed from the city's demolition account during the council's fiscal 2017 budget deliberations in June. She anticipated spending about $20,000 to hire a firm to conduct the study.
"We have an obligation ... with the property in this condition ... to make it safe," the mayor said.
The suspicious fire on Aug. 29 heavily damaged the long-vacant paper mill, with the roof collapse and the intense smoke and flames lasting for several hours after it started. The next day, the owner BBM realty Co. and Gerald Binder of New Jersey, at the request of city safety officials, demolished what was left standing of the factory, leaving only the smoke stack.
Tyer said leaving the rubble poses a risk to neighbors, the nearby Housatonic River and potential redevelopment of the site.
Ultimately, the owner would be responsible for the assessment and any cleanup funded by taxpayer dollars.
"Every dollar we spend ... there will be a lien on the property and [the owner] will pay back the cost," she said.
Councilor at large Melissa Mazzeo said she's heard this scenario before, noting the city has been stuck owning properties it has remediated in the past.
"I have a really big problem doing this," she said. "We can put liens on it and if they don't pay the taxes .. they just don't care."
Tyer admitted the owner has been "irresponsible" when it comes to paying back taxes and responding to city concerns over code violations on the property. City Finance Director/Treasurer Matthew Kerwood said the owner is at least $18,000 behind on the property tax bill.
The councilors who backed the mayor's request did so for public safety reasons.
"I'm fully against taking this property, but in support of making it safe," said Ward 6 Councilor John Krol.
"I would like to get this ball rolling," added Councilor at large Peter White. "I would like to see the study completed as the unknown is a little bit too scary for me."
Another unknown is the actual cleanup cost, which could run hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Simonelli wasn't keen on the city having no guarantee the owner would repay the city.
"If my house burned down, I wouldn't expect the city to clean it up," he said.
"You're a responsible owner," Tyer replied.
City and state fire officials are still investigating the cause of the multiple-alarm blaze that took dozens of city and surrounding communities firefighters several hours to contain. The preliminary indication is someone accidently or deliberately set the fire in a building known to be a haven for squatters. Fire investigators are unsure if anyone illegally bedded down in the factory may be responsible for igniting the inferno.
Since the factory had been abandoned for years, city fire officials have said it was a fire waiting to happen.
Prior to becoming a paper manufacturer, the building was home to the Elmvale Worsted Mill.
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233