As I sat there in the Great Barrington Selectmen’s meeting, I was thinking about once again falling down a rabbit hole. But instead of something from “Alice in Wonderland,” I heard in my head that famous line from “Hamlet:” “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark.”
Pretty funny seeing as how I recently wrote a column about good government and the EPA. I haven’t attended a Selectmen’s meeting since the meetings about Downtown Redevelopment. But I became interested after reading about the Rogers Road dispute in the Berkshire Record.
In the good old days, Rogers Trucking ran his garbage business on Rogers Road, which in the midst of the residential neighborhood of Blue Hill Road. As Rogers’ son-in-law reminded the Selectmen, you could pretty much do what you wanted then and so his trucks would come and go at all hours of the day and night. And the family also loved animals, horses and donkeys, and they were all over the place. Of course, the neighbors complained about the noise but Mr. Rogers provided jobs and took care of everybody’s garbage and emptied septic tanks and helped out the fire company, and business in business and garbage is garbage, and garbage just happens to be a particularly noisy business.
There was a court case about all in 1996 that limited Rogers’ activity but gave him the right to park his vehicles and maintain an office on the site. The court gave those rights to Mr. Rogers’ successors as well. So the question comes down to exactly what kind of business is occurring on the Rogers Road property now and does it legitimately fall under the permitted uses of that court decision? Gary O’Brien who bought the property claims he is operating a landscaping business and parks his vehicles and runs his business out of the office. He is expanding the property to include a tree farm, an agricultural use clearly permitted under state law.
His neighbors and more recently Great Barrington’s Building Inspector, Edwin May, believe Mr. O’Brien is involved in a series of activities that do not fall under the 1996 ruling or state regulations for agricultural use. The neighbors allege that Mr. O’Brien has been operating a gravel pit, and noisily moving large quantities of materials to and from the property.
So why should you care about any of this? Well it turns out this is all about how our local government functions here in Great Barrington. The Town Building Inspector ruled that Mr. O’Brien was engaged in activities that violated our Town’s Zoning Bylaws. When these activities continued, he issued a formal Cease and Desist Order. And because Mr. O’Brien failed to stop, he levied fines. It turns out that that is Mr. May’s job. He is the legally designated governmental agent charged with enforcing our Zoning Bylaws.
And as Jonathan Hankin of the Planning Board reminded us, our Zoning By-laws are passed by a two-third’s vote of town residents at Town Meeting. That’s the highest bar we set in our little democracy; it’s the clearest, least ambiguous indication of what we the little people want for our town.
And here is where Main Street meets Denmark. What should have been a clear issue for the town became ever more murky. A clear determination by the man supposed to make these determinations gets ignored by some combination of the Town Manager, and the Town Counsel. And the Selectmen who are very busy and very overworked seemed not to notice this is happening.
For some reason the Town Manager, Kevin O’Donnell and the Town Counsel, David J. Doneski, decided to work all this out with Mr. O’Brien’s attorney, Ed McCormick, either on the phone or over coffee. Unfortunately, there seem to be no official notes of any of these conversations.
Now I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know whether any of this is illegal or not. But it certainly doesn’t promote open, transparent, democratic government. Or effective government.
While Mr. McCormick seemed to think they had worked everything out, the Selectman seem not to have been informed by Mr. O’Donnell or Mr. Doneski about what they were doing. And Mr. O’Brien’s neighbors still aren’t happy.
There were those Denmark moments when I wasn’t sure whether Mr. Doneski was representing our town or Mr. McCormick’s client. And Town Manager O’Donnell was uncharacteristically silent while the Selectmen tried to catch up with almost a year’s worth of mis- or non-communication. It seemed clear to me that for doing his job Mr. May had been left all alone out on a very thin limb.
Considering I voted for all of the current selectmen, I really hope they don’t pull a Hamlet on this one. And I can’t help but wonder whether the same dysfunction has characterized the Town’s plans to completely disrupt Main Street next year.
Thursday June 16, 2011, The Berkshire Record © Mickey Friedman