The great compromise?

  • The French King overlay district by Stop and Shop in Greenfield. February 6, 2019 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • The French King overlay district by Stop and Shop in Greenfield. February 6, 2019 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • From Clark Street north is the French King overlay district in Greenfield. February 6, 2019 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • Former Mackin property, now owned by Ceruzzi Properties, off the French King Highway in Greenfield. February 6, 2019 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 2/6/2019 7:36:23 PM

GREENFIELD — A deal is in the works that would gain support for a new library in exchange for easing of some development restrictions in Greenfield.

In a move that could artfully begin to put behind decades of division over development, City Council President Karen “Rudy” Renaud and At-Large Councilor Isaac Mass are working on a compromise to exchange a new library for less restrictive laws around the French King Highway and, more generally, for major developments citywide. 

The proposed zoning law changes by Renaud come as an 11th-hour move, a last ditch effort to approve the building of a $19.5 million Greenfield Public Library that has been hung up for months as a handful of councilors have worried about the potential strain on taxpayers and what this project could mean for the vitality of Greenfield. 

Renaud had been in talks with Mass for the past month or so about this idea he first proposed. Approval of a new library has been short at least one of the needed nine votes.

Since then, there have been efforts by supporters of the library to raise more private donations, which now totals about $670,000 toward the $2 million goal.

“I thought minds could be changed,” Renaud said. “I’m just not seeing anything changing anybody’s minds but this. This is the first time I’ve seen light. This seems like the only option. Otherwise, I’m very convinced the library will fail.”

If this proposed zoning change moves forward and doesn’t face any significant hurdles, both the votes on the zoning change and on the new public library would come forward at the March Greenfield City Council meeting. 

“Instead of everybody walking away with nothing, this will give everybody something of what they want,” Renaud said. “I really think it’s going to help heal some of those divisions we have in Greenfield.” 

The proposed zoning changes to the French King Highway overlay district would stretch from Clark Street, the block south of Silver Street, and stretch up to Route 2. Current rules make it restrictive for fast food, drive-throughs or gas stations to open in that area. It is also the same area where a big box store has sought to open in years past. 

The council meeting would likely come on March 20, which happens to be a couple weeks before the “big box” planning board appeal makes its way before Franklin County Superior Court. 

That case has held up a store, like a Walmart, from opening there. Residents had appealed a special permit granted by the Greenfield Planning Board in 2011 for a 135,000-square-foot unnamed store. Nationally known anti-big box consultant Al Norman of Greenfield said in December he expects the formal trial to begin by late March. 

While lifting the overlay district on the French King Highway is a key negotiation piece, Mass said he does need to see more out of what he considers to be the bigger piece of the puzzle: the major development review, which governs the entirety of Greenfield. 

“There’s a million little things I could say, but Greenfield is a town that has champagne tastes and a beer budget,” Mass said. “My goal is I want to give the town a raise. I want to give it a bigger budget.”

He said he hopes these changes could attract more development and significantly increase the tax base, and, therefore, give the city more money to invest in bigger projects, like a new library, a fire station and other infrastructure project. 

“If we can take steps today to make those projects in the future more affordable, I think it’s a win-win,” Mass said. 

Mass hopes relaxing the French King Highway district rules could spur development similar to what Athol has at its Quabbin Commons, which has a Market Basket, Starbucks and other businesses. He doesn’t see it developing into a highway shopping district like Route 9 in Hadley, because Greenfield doesn’t have thousands of college students a short bus ride away, nor that long a stretch of flat open land for development. 

Instead, he could see places like an Outback Steakhouse, a Marshal’s or a TJ Maxx, as well as office space in that area. Mass also hopes the changes to the major development review could help expedite development of the old Candlelight Motor Inn property on the Mohawk Trail. 

“It ultimately comes down to one point of view for me,” Mass said. “We have to make a decision: Are we a city that allows major development so we can afford big projects like a big library and a big firehouse or do we want to be a small community with small development?”

At December’s City Council meeting, the no-leaning votes on the library, like Precinct 1 Verne Sund and Precinct 4 Wanda Pyfrom, expressed a need to increase shopping, particularly for clothes, in Greenfield. 

“These issues are interrelated,” Mass said Wednesday about the library and economic development, particularly of the French King Highway. “If we do not have economic growth and we don’t have rising income, we are limited to how much we can spend. This is a precarious project as it is. I am very skeptical of how we can pay for this thing.” 

“But I represent an entire community, I don’t just represent conservatives, and I don’t just represent people who are concerned about their taxes, I represent the entire community,” Mass said, and “if there’s an opportunity to put behind 30 years of fighting,” he said he’s willing to compromise. 

Renaud acknowledges that this compromise may seem a “radical departure from what folks would normally see out of what they consider a ‘progressive’ council.” 

“Are people going to be mad? Absolutely,” Renaud said. “I guess I could’ve said ‘no’ and not been the one to propose it and nothing would have happened. I feel like if I don’t at least try, and just watch the library fail, then I wouldn’t have been doing what I was elected to do. Maybe the library will fail anyhow.” 

Both Renaud and Mass, whose terms expire at the end of the year, acknowledged that trust will be required on both sides of the council divide. 

In theory, it’s possible for the newly elected councilors in November to try to undo the zoning changes in 2020, when they come in. Renaud acknowledged this possibility, and said she doesn’t know what new councilors may do, but it would be “bargaining in bad faith” if a current councilor tried to undue the deal next year. 

“Maybe it’s not illegal, but I don’t think it’s principled to do that,” Renaud said. 

Mayor William Martin said he’s willing to back the proposed zoning changes, more or less. He does, like Mass, want to see more specific overhauls to the major development review, which could allow for more affordable housing, more jobs on limited land. He said although it’s not his preference to lobby votes, he said, “I don’t think this is contaminated at all.”

“I think it’s two pluses,” Martin said. “If we can do two positive things at the same time, I think it’s great for the city.” 

For Mass and Renaud, it’s an opportunity to heal divisions over the French King Highway that have remained political wedges for years in a city of 17,000. 

“We live in the same community, our kids go to the same schools, we go to the same grocery stores,” Mass said. “It’s not like when I’m upset with someone I can go off to Mar A Lago and they can go off to San Francisco.” 

“We live together,” Mass continued. “We have to do better locally than they do nationally.” 

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264


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