North Adams, MA. Wal-Mart Mired in Asbestos, Wetlands Violations
A Connecticut developer who is trying to build two new Wal-Mart supercenters within 37 miles of each other in Western, Massachusetts has run into environmental problems in both locations -- but so far, neither town seems to have noticed the other's similarities.
In Greenfield, Massachusetts developer Louis J. Ceruzzi has just spent three years waiting for environmental officials to approve clean up plans for a former sandpit polluted with oil. A wetland on the property had to be excavated to remove petrochemical pollutants, and is now being restored. Ceruzzi and the land owner had originally planned to cover over the wetland and put a big box building on top of it. But Greenfield residents fought for three years to protect the wetland -- and it is now being restored.
Ceruzzi's consultants insisted that the wetland was man-made and therefore not subject to local or state wetland protection. But once residents filed a lawsuit with the state, the developer changed his plans instead to build a store around the wetland. The 160,000 s.f. store is now going to the Planning Board for a special permit review.
After three years, Ceruzzi has not revealed -- and town officials have not asked -- who his tenant is, but the project is a Wal-Mart.
Thirty-seven miles away, the same Connecticut developer has submitted plans for an identical 160,000 s.f. Wal-Mart superstore. As the end of March, the North Adams Transcript reported that the Conservation Commission was grilling Ceruzzi over a 'stop work' order that had been forced by the state's Department of Environmental Protection. In mid February, Ceruzzi had been ordered to stop any further site work on the property for violating erosion control standards. Work is being done to close down the gravel pit site. The lawyer for the construction company handling the site work refused to talk to the media. "I'm not willing to discuss the issues at the site at this time. An unfortunate accident happened. We are working with the state Department of Environmental Protection on that issue. It does not serve a constructive process for us to bring those issues up now."
Lack of proper protocols on the site resulted in heavy rains moving sediment into streams on the site. The state's DEP stepped in and ordered the Conservation Commission to stop the work. The DEP forced the developer to bring in a consulting engineer to oversee stabilization on the site.
Ceruzzi chose the same engineering firm he used in Greenfield: Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB). Ceruzzi is required to submit a stabilization plan to the state. VHB told The Transcript that some hay bales, earth berms and swales were put into place to stop the sediment flow -- but the developer does not want the public to know the extent of the damage. Several areas on the site were still not stabilized as of the start of April.
One area resident told the Conservation Commission that there were wood frogs and spotted salamanders in pools on the site -- pools that residents claimed could be vernal pools. When the resident offered to show the board photos she had taken of the species, the lawyer for the construction company warned her to stay off their property. "I'm telling you now to stay off of the property," the lawyer said.
City officials joined in and reminded the public that the gravel pit, which was once city-owned, has been sold to Ceruzzi. "The city sold it several years ago," the city's Administrative Officer said. "Individuals cannot enter the property without permission of the owner. The city has also been made aware that individuals have been at the property, identifying themselves as agents of the city. We will not tolerate this. All of our employees, board and commission members will have proper identification when out in public."
Ceruzzi announced that he is installing a temporary fence to keep the public off the site. The last thing he needs are photos of salamanders and wood frogs.
In Greenfield, the state DEP warned the property owner that keeping the public from going along during a site walk could lead to legal problems later. The landowner argued for months that the pubic should not be allowed to walk his site, but ultimately gave in and allowed the public to be part of a DEP walk.
In North Adams, the President of the Hoosic River Watershed Association asked the landowner what state law allowed for the restriction of the public going on the site visit without prior approval of the property owner. Ceruzzi's representative said he "could not cite the specific law off the top of his head."
Several days after the stop work order controversy, the Ceruzzi project in North Adams dumped another problem into the media. The DEP, it turns out, is also investigating the illegal dumping of demolition debris, including asbestos, at the proposed Wal-Mart site. The construction company working on the site was accused of burying demolition debris at the site.
A spokesman for Ceruzzi told the Transcript, "I am aware that the DEP is investigating an anonymous complaint related to solid waste -- and perhaps hazardous waste -- violations at the site. While I have no way of knowing what is happening within the DEP, it is my understanding that my client was not the subject of the complaint. It is also my understanding that my client is not the subject of the investigation."
The state DEP would only confirm that an investigation was underway, and that the new charges were separate from the sedimentation control violations at the same site. Ceruzzi indicated that he would cooperate fully with the state investigation and would provide Wal-Mart with "a clean site" for their superstore.
Ceruzzi's spokesman noted that Wal-Mart might hire its own environmental experts to review the site to make sure it is not contaminated. The Transcript claims that the illegal dumping of potentially hazardous material was the charge that led to the sedimentation control wetlands violations as well.
What you can do: North Adams Mayor Richard J. Alcombright, who has been in office a little over three months, immediately embraced this project, as if it was a form of economic development for this small city which already has an existing Wal-Mart discount store, which will close if this larger store is ever built. The city appears to have been joined at the hip with this project since day one -- given the fact that the property was owned by the city, and was sold to private developers. If the city were to drop hands with the developer now -- it would look like they had set the developer up for a bad deal. But the North Adams public was left out of the deal -- and no one ever vetted the idea of a huge superstore with residents who don't support national chain store sprawl as their ideal for small town New England living.
North Adams is trying to remake its image as a dead industrial town with vacant warehouses, to an innovative center for the arts featuring the Mass Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). The North Adams downtown is still struggling, and the Mayor's tango with Wal-Mart is not helping the image either.
Founded in 1998, Ceruzzi Properties is a leading developer of "big-box" retail "power centers" throughout the northeastern United States. The former Mayor of North Adams called Mr. Ceruzzi, who owns two buildings, a restaurant and a movie theater in North Adams, "a slum landlord, nothing better." Ceruzzi owns the former North Adams Plaza, which is farther south on Curran Highway.
The group North Adams First has predicted that a Wal-Mart superstore "has the potential to not only drive existing small businesses, like Big Y and Mister Tire, out of business, but to ensure that starting a small retail business is a virtual impossibility." The group adds, "In addition, big-box stores have driven retail further and further from our downtown area, first with Kmart, then Wal-Mart and now with the Wal-Mart Supercenter, even further from downtown. If we want a vibrant downtown that will serve existing residents and attract new residents and small businesses, we should not allow the Wal-Mart Supercenter project to go forward."
In October of 2006, the former K-Mart building, which was killed off by Wal-Mart, located in the center of downtown reopened with two new retail stores, Peebles and Staples. This project and local grocery stores in North Adams will all suffer with the arrival of a larger Wal-Mart.
Ceruzzi has invested nearly $5.4 million for its two Curran Highway projects -- the Wal-Mart and a proposed Lowe's big box store. Ceruzzi bought the 8 acre gravel bank from the city two years ago, and bought another 50 acres abutting the gravel pit.
Readers are urged to email Mayor Richard Alcombright at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message: "Dear Mayor Alcombright, Just what North Adams needs: a bigger Wal-Mart with another grocery store in it! Go talk to the managers at Big Y, Stop & Shop and Price Chopper about how many grocery stores your little city can absorb.
This is not economic development. If Peebles goes under, how does that help your downtown? North Adams is drifting without a plan. All you are doing is shifting market share. This is the same developer that former Mayor Barrett once described as a 'slum landlord.'
You don't keep the sales tax generated by this project. You displace current jobs, and you continue developing suburban sprawl projects in an urban area. This project makes no sense from an economic, environmental, or quality of life perspective.
If you think the 'old' Wal-Mart is going to be easy to fill, call up city officials in Plymouth and Natick and ask them how they feel about the marketability of empty Wal-Marts in their community.
You should require Ceruzzi to put up a demolition bond to pay for the razing of the existing Wal-Mart if it sits empty for longer than 12 months. North Adams doesn't need more 'ghost boxes.
Now the landowner wants to keep the public from being along for a site walk. Check with the DEP on that one. They will tell you that Ceruzzi will be vulnerable legally if he refuses to allow the public to walk the site. If there are vernal pools on that site, you won't hear it from the developer.
Any 10 residents in North Adams can petition the DEP for a 'Public Involvement Process' over the clean up of this site. That way the public will know what's going on at that site, and not have to listen to lawyers threatening what will happen if the public tries to get on that site.
Have Ceruzzi pay for an independent environmental assessment of that site -- especially in light of the illegal dumping and wetlands violations, which are spinning out of control.
The speedy Planning Board approval of this project leaves the impression that the city is acting as a co-developer in this project, and not protecting the environment and the public. This is no way to start your new Administration -- in the back pocket of a rich Connecticut developer. Be careful when they try to sit down."