Great Barrington passes on chance to preserve land near high school

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The Select Board passed on an opportunity to purchase and preserve 65 acres along Route 7 across from Monument Mountain Regional High School on Monday night.

The vote was 4-1 not to take advantage of Great Barrington's right of first refusal on the property being sold by Swann Real Estate Trust. Ed Abrahams voted in favor of the $340,000 purchase.

The land, which is at the base of Monument Mountain, is not an ideal candidate for preservation, board members said, but it's in an area that could have an impact on the town's aesthetic and conservation efforts.

Some of the land resides along Stockbridge Road (Route 7) at the community's proverbial gateway and, if preserved, could connect with the conservation properties on its borders. Other portions of the property contain an old gravel pit and overlook the transfer station. Clover Swann, one of the Trust's owners, attended the meeting and said she hoped the town would buy the land, but it will likely be sold to an excavating company.

The Planning Board reviewed the two contiguous plots that make up the sale property in September and concluded the Select Board should consider buying it due to its close proximity to Monument Mountain and Agawam conservation areas, according to Planning Board members who attended Monday's meeting.

Selectman Daniel Bailly said he was concerned that buying the property would limit the town's resources if a more desirable piece of land becomes available.

"What if, down the road," he said, "there's a property that we want to spend money on — that isn't a gravel bed — that could have a larger impact on the town?"

Great Barrington had the opportunity to purchase 64.5 acres across the street from the high school when, in August, Swann Real Estate Trust proposed selling the property, which contains 33 acres of state-protected land. That protection triggered the town's option of first refusal, but with the catch that if the town did buy it, the entire property would become conservation land, not just the current 33 acres.

Abrahams, the Select Board vice chairman, said the property is valued at more than $140,000 over the asking price. He said it would be unpleasant to see a business go in where there was once open space along the gateway.

"It could be the high school and then a mini self-storage [business] on the right," Abrahams said. "I get it's a lot of money, but it's important land."

The prospective buyer is Chris Williams, president/owner of an excavation company based in West Stockbridge, according to a legal letter from Swann Real Estate Trust to the town. Calls to Williams to confirm his interest were not returned. Part of the sale is contingent on the Trust removing the "Chapter 61 Tax Lien," aka the Massachusetts Forest Tax Program, protection status on the property. Owners of forestland under the program get a small property tax break.

If the town had opted to purchase the property, funds from the Real Estate Fund, which contains $600,000-$650,000, town officials estimated.

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini, 413-629-4621.

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