Building projects, new college and broadband on horizon for North County

  • A view looking east on Church Street in Bernardston. recorder file photo

Recorder Staff
Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Between a medical marijuana growing facility in Bernardston, a new college in Northfield and broadband build-outs, North County residents can expect big changes as they move into 2018.

A trend of bridge replacements also strings the towns together, including the Turners Falls Road bridge in Bernardston, potentially the Keets Brook Bridge in Leyden, and the Schell Memorial Bridge in Northfield, for which the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is finalizing a design for anticipated 2021 construction of a pedestrian/bike span.


The Schell Bridge Advisory Committee recently announced MassDOT settled on three possible designs to replace the Schell Memorial Bridge, which was closed in 1985 because it deteriorated too far for safe use, with a pedestrian/bike span.

Judy Wagner, chairwoman of the committee, anticipates MassDOT representatives will lead an informational meeting in early 2018 to discuss their progress and “where that leads them in terms of design and cost elements.”

Meanwhile, the Emergency Services Facility Committee expects to ask annual town meeting voters to fund Phase II design for a public safety complex, which would be located on the Fire Station’s lot on the corner of Main and School streets.

Voters at this month’s special town meeting approved spending $15,000 for necessary title research for the property. Committee Chairman Floyd “Skip” Dunnell III, who is also fire chief and emergency management director, said the work will be done by annual town meeting, leading the committee to ask for the next round of funding.

“There’s also going to be some public education as to the needs of the different departments,” Dunnell said, adding the committee will likely start open houses and educational meetings in March.

Farther up Main Street from the potential public safety complex, Thomas Aquinas College, a Roman Catholic liberal arts college out of Santa Paula, Calif., hopes to start teaching students at its Northfield branch in the fall of 2018. The college, which acquired the majority of the Northfield campus in May, is seeking approval from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.

Thomas Aquinas College President Michael McLean believes March is the latest the college could get approval and still plan to open in 2018. The college’s contingency plan, should it not get approval by March, would involve delaying a year.


As the Planning Board recently approved construction of a 20,000-square-foot medical marijuana grow facility operated by Happy Valley Compassion Center, residents can expect to see construction off of Northfield Road (Route 10). Site work has already commenced.

“The grow facility is a major development for the town in terms of bringing in much needed tax revenue and well paying jobs in the community,” Town Coordinator Hugh Campbell said. In accordance with the host agreement negotiated with the Selectboard, Happy Valley Compassion Center Chief Financial Officer Patrick Cloney said the nonprofit medical marijuana organization will pay taxes at the town’s single rate.

When asked in November, Happy Valley Compassion Center Chief Executive Officer Jim Counihan estimated growing marijuana could begin in the summer of 2018, but noted the timeline will be heavily contingent on how winter weather impacts construction.

Also under the title of new construction, the Fire Station Expansion Committee expects to reconsider the issue of a new fire station, seeing how the committee’s $2.6 million proposal to build a new station at 23 Kringle Drive was voted down at October’s special town meeting. Following the vote, committee Chairman Peter Shedd, who is also fire chief, said the committee plans to reconvene after the holidays to explore new plans.

Campbell said the town also plans to prioritize culvert repairs, and intends for construction of a new Turners Falls Road bridge to be complete by summer’s end.


Leyden continues to develop its broadband network. As of October, Broadband Committee Chairman Bob Ryan said project manager Westfield Gas & Electric expects the network will be complete by August of 2018, offering 25 megabits per second speeds.

However, one unsolved variable is how the town will afford to replace its unusually high number of deficient utility poles. Ryan previously explained the Massachusetts Broadband Institute assumed a 4 percent pole replacement rate, or 33 poles. However, the study by MBI’s selected vendor, Osmose Utilities Services, found 336 poles — or 36 percent — were categorized as needing replacement.

“You can’t go from 33 to 336 without substantial cost impacts,” Ryan said previously. “We potentially could have a $700,000 hit coming at us.”

In an October meeting with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, officials hoped the state might provide additional assistance in covering the pole replacement or surety bonds.

Selectboard Chairman Lance Fritz said the board also hopes to start repairs on the Keets Brook Bridge, which is down to one lane with a three-ton weight limit following an inspection. However, Fritz said “that depends on whether we get a grant.”


On the other side of North County, Warwick town officials have also been working on their town’s broadband network. Town Coordinator David Young said the town is nearing the halfway point in its infrastructure upgrade, which is funded largely by a $450,000 Last Mile program grant.

“All the neighborhood masts are installed and half of the 12 tall masts have been connected to the grid, allowing us to proceed with deployment,” Young said. The masts are designed to improve signal.

When the grant was received in December of 2016, Broadband Committee Chairman Tom Wyatt explained the goal was to expand and upgrade the current wireless internet system to reach the state-required high speed of 25 megabits, utilizing LTE technology.

In commemoration of the recent purchase of approximately 88 acres that is now part of the Warwick Town Forest, the Open Space Committee is planning a public celebration for early 2018, Young added.

Town employees, Young said, will be involved in more frequent fire drills and interaction with the Fire Department to further fire prevention and safety efforts.

Reach Shelby Ashline at: sashline@recorder.com

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