WEST STOCKBRIDGE — Two business owners now are trying to resolve a dispute created by decadeslong municipal negligence for a street grid that has trapped a restaurant in a corner of town without the assurance of legal public access.
Without private resolution, the owners of Truc Orient Express and The Foundry might end up in court.
And one Select Board member broke rank at a special meeting Wednesday, via Zoom, in an effort to quickly reverse the long-standing failure. Roger Kavanagh moved that the town immediately should take steps to turn privately owned Merritt Way into a legal easement to provide access to Truc and other homes and businesses off Harris Street — and not wait for engineers to study how to open up both ends of the street to traffic, even though that is a good plan for the future.
Kavanagh said the town’s time is up.
“We’re just kicking the can down the road,” he said. “The problem is here today.”
Neither of the other two board members would second Kavanagh’s motion. They took umbrage at the suggestion of can-kicking, and Highway Director Curt Wilton pointed out that he already had contacted three engineering firms. Board Chairman Eric Shimelonis said, given attempts to resolve the short-term problem, he would prefer to first see the results of the study before trying to acquire a slice of property that The Foundry, a performing arts venue, has owned for two years.
“I’d like that to be a negotiation and not a court process,” Shimelonis said.
The crisis now embroiling the community, which is more than two decades in the making, was created when the town closed the Harris Street bridge to traffic and converted it to a footbridge, leaving the unofficial Merritt Way the only access to Truc, essentially landlocking it with private property.
Town officials are working to buy an easement that would join Harris and Moscow streets, and study whether to allow traffic on the bridge. But, this won’t solve the immediate problem for Truc patrons, as the restaurant is about to start takeout service while planning a full reopening.
The Foundry — it adjoins Merritt Way — decided to close the passage to protect audiences from 5 to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Owner Amy Brentano said she is trying to be careful amid lingering COVID-19 concerns, even though emergency restrictions are lifted.
And Brentano and Truc Nguyen are attempting an immediate access solution with the help of their lawyers. Nguyen said she is “grateful for that spirit of trying to work together,” after Brentano reached out for a solution.
Board member Kathleen Keresey suggested that some unfairness toward Brentano is afoot by the many people who have waded into the conflict in recent weeks.
“Due process should be played out here,” she said at the meeting, which was attended by more than 60 people.
Yet, Nguyen, whose family has owned the restaurant for 42 years, said she supports The Foundry, but adds that the board appears to be favoring Brentano, despite the town having legally “crippled us.”
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Mitch Greenwald, Nguyen’s attorney, said later that his client’s case for allowing legal, ongoing access is strong, given long-term maintenance by the town and use by the public, and the presence of town-owned signs. Should negotiations fail, Nguyen will go to court to ask for a prescriptive easement, which stems from continued use without permission from a property owner.
Greenwald said his research indicates the bridge was closed to cars in 1991.
At the meeting, Greenwald told officials that related problems could spring up.
“This town could be liable to all the parties,” he said. “There’s damages to people that are rendered landlocked.”
He also pointed out that the board somehow had not required The Foundry to obtain a special permit when it opened; only an entertainment license. Permitting might have prevented the current situation, since permits can attach conditions and require notifying abutters.
Upon this criticism of the board, blame took flight. Shimelonis asked Greenwald why he hadn’t solved the problem during his three decades on the Planning Board, something Greenwald later suggested is a diversion, since the Planning Board doesn’t have jurisdiction over easements, and “all town officials knew about this problem.”
Shimelonis, a musician and sound designer, soon found himself under fire for having helped Brentano in the past. He told The Eagle in an email that Brentano had asked for his expertise in 2019 when she opened The Foundry. He has also helped a number of other businesses in town, he added.
"I offered some setup help, mixed one Christmas themed drag-show, and insisted that anything I do for [Brentano] is gratis, as I wanted to avoid exactly situations like this," he wrote. "I’ve never drawn a dollar in salary or any other non-cash value from The Foundry."
Others at the meeting said Merritt Way always has functioned as a public road. Police Chief Marc Portieri said he views it and treats it that way for public safety. And others worry that the tangle, with all its rancor, could rip apart the community.
Stephanie Iverson, who owns a jewelry store in The Foundry building, said just that.
“I feel like we’re a little bit on the brink,” she said. “I hate to see us going at each other like this.”