Pushback: If a tree falls in Montague, does it make a sound?

A No to Rezone sign in Montague.

A No to Rezone sign in Montague. AL NORMAN

AL NORMAN

AL NORMAN FILE PHOTO

By AL NORMAN

Published: 09-19-2023 11:34 PM

Citizens on Turnpike Road jammed the Montague Planning Board hearing on Aug. 22, opposing a town plan to rezone 15.6 acres of forest land for an undisclosed Franklin County industrial user. On a 3-2 vote, the Planning Board supported the rezoning.

It was not initially disclosed, but the industrial entity was Greenfield-based NE-XT, formerly known as Valley Steel Stamp, which was acquired in 2021 by multi-billionaire Hamilton James, formerly of The Blackstone Group.

A citizen’s group assembled to protect the two abutting cemeteries, the more than 200 nearby homes, and the roughly 679,560-square-foot wooded lot which was sold to the town in 2008 by the Catholic Bishop of Springfield. The citizen’s group, called Rest In Peace, was organized by Evelyn Walsh, an abutting homeowner. “We seek to perpetuate the peace and tranquility of the cemeteries, and all the neighboring homes we have invested in,” Walsh explained. “Some of us are concerned about the increased traffic this would pose,” she added. “Others are concerned about the decimation of a beautiful natural habitat and hiking trails that are used daily by residents.”

The 2018 Montague Open Space and Recreation Plan notes that “large blocks of forest remain intact. Montague’s 1999 Comprehensive Plan … points to the importance of forests: they protect aquifers, streams and wildlife habitat; they clean the air and the water and they provide us with raw materials to support our community.”

Montague’s Planner told the Selectboard that the rezoning initially arose due to interest from a manufacturing company in Franklin County that was looking to expand but had “trouble finding a permissible location to do so.” “That’s kind of what inspired this zoning amendment change. It’s to accommodate this preferable business to consider this location.” The assistant town administrator revealed he was bringing a “companion article” to the October special Town Meeting regarding the sale of this parcel to a developer.

Neighbors contended this rezoning was being done for one parcel to “accommodate” one specific company as a form of “spot zoning.” The Turners Falls Cemetery Association presented a letter to the Planning Board, unanimously opposing the rezoning of their land. The Planning Board removed the cemetery parcel, then voted to rezone only the forested land.

Complaints over lack of public transparency prompted one Selectboard member to state: “There is no done deal. There is no backdoor dealing.” But one Planning Board member voted against the rezoning because the town had failed to produce any legal confirmation regarding the legality of spot zoning.

Montague has been very skilled at separating Greenfield from its locally owned industries. According to a 2012 study by The Cecil Group, industrial uses provided 1,000 jobs in Montague — 50% of Montague’s employment base. In 2012, manufacturing paid 15% of property taxes in Montague. Two of the largest firms in the Airport Industrial Park in 2012 were relocated from Greenfield: Light Life Foods, 110 employees, and Heat Fab, 120 employees. But Montague has been running low on industrial space for a decade.

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At the Sept. 11 Selectboard meeting, Rest In Peace founder Walsh noted that Montague officials had private discussions with NE-XT since April 7. The town’s “internal game plan” was to sell or lease the parcel to NE-XT without issuing a request for proposals (RFP). “Montague has more to gain,” Walsh testified, “from developing publicly a deliberative and comprehensive process to create a second industrial park for the town — one that is open to a number of potential tenants, and one that does not disadvantage or disrupt neighboring residential properties as an outcome. The airport industrial park has been a great success for this town. Let’s build on that success without throwing any more neighborhoods literally ‘under the truck.’ We hope you will withdraw your plan to submit an article at the special October meeting.”

Selectboard Chairman Rich Kuklewicz responded: “I do not support putting it on the warrant. There’s too many questions still.” Board Clerk Matt Lord added: “I hope we can move it forward on a different warrant. This parcel represents a great development opportunity for the town.” Lord noted he appreciated the citizens’ efforts “to advocate and educate Town Meeting members.” “I do apologize,” Town Administrator Steve Ellis added. “You’re all my neighbors in a sense … I understand your concerns on a personal level.” The board decided to leave the rezoning articles “off the agenda.”

Rest In Peace will be ready to respond to any future plans. Which proves: If several hundred trees fall in Montague it makes a very loud sound indeed.

Al Norman of Greenfield has been a community activist and author for 45 years. His Pushback column appears every third Wednesday.