Our Opinion: Mazzeo land-swap offer should be considered

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From an environmentalist's standpoint, Mazzeo's Ristorante owner Tony Mazzeo's offer to swap a package of properties and cash for the old Berkshire Flower Company plot across Route 7 from his eatery would look like a brazen land grab (Eagle, Sunday). After all, the City of Pittsfield made a deal in 2011with the company's owner, Bridget Brown, that upon her death or after 20 years, the property would be given to the city and turned into green space. All this was agreed to in order to compensate for commercial development just to the south of the property at the Dan Fox Drive intersection in the 1980s.

Last Thursday, Mr. Mazzeo presented his offer through his attorney to the Pittsfield Conservation Commission, under whose purview the usage of the land falls should the city take possession of the property, which it is poised to do under the agreement. From a business owner's perspective, his intention to turn the property into a take-out hub, deli or cafe makes perfect sense: It couldn't be closer to his main restaurant's kitchen, and the Route 7 corridor, which is among the most heavily traveled in Berkshire County, is a prime location for a business that would draw a portion of its clientele from passing traffic.

As expected, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council and the Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT) have weighed in to oppose Mr. Mazzeo's plan. That is their prerogative — in fact their mission — and it is critical that those who advocate a green space at the city's gateway be given a full and sincere hearing. Moreover, a deal is a deal, and as Jane Wynn, executive director of BEAT told The Eagle, "It's important that we don't go back on our promises to nature." That said, the decision as to how to develop or not develop the parcel is not a binary choice.

Mr. Mazzeo's offer of two parcels of land he owns elsewhere in the city, along with a $25,000 contribution to its conservation fund, may or may not be what he describes as a "more than reasonable offer," but it is for the Conservation Commission to weigh that offer's value in exchange for the green space lost. The commission is in the catbird seat, because it has the leverage to dictate the ultimate character of Mr. Mazzeo's development by reserving the prerogative to review plans, limit footprint and signage in exchange for relinquishing the plot. It may also decide to reject the offer, honor the longstanding arrangement and allow the land to return to a natural vegetative state if it so chooses.

Mr. Mazzeo does have a commendable record for maintaining an attractive and popular Pittsfield restaurant, which had been a formerly distressed property as well as Mazcots, a sports pub and eatery down the road. Since he is the one who introduced the land swap proposal, the burden is upon him to furnish a detailed plan that will convince the commission that the parcel is worth more to the city as a taxpaying property than as a natural asset. While the arguments of environmental groups should be given full weight, we urge the commission to keep an open mind and approach this decision with the kind of nuanced reasoning it deserves.

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