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Natural gas moratorium continues to hurt Amherst business climate

  • Berkshire Gas service center on Mill Street in Greenfield. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt



Staff Writer
Thursday, March 16, 2017

AMHERST — Without being able to access natural gas, a master brewer interested in opening a microbrewery and tap room in an old barn in Amherst abruptly ended conversations with town officials and a property owner, according to the town’s economic development director.

“They pretty quickly stopped returning calls,” said Geoff Kravitz, who told the Select Board Monday that the brewer recognized that any alternative to natural gas would be cost prohibitive.

This is one example of how the ongoing moratorium on new connections for natural gas, imposed by supplier Berkshire Gas in March 2015, is likely discouraging businesses from coming to Amherst and Hadley, and increasing costs for developers in both communities.

The moratorium on new or expanded natural gas service also extends to Hatfield and the Franklin County towns of Deerfield, Sunderland, Whately, Montague and Greenfield.

Kravitz said that businesses have chosen not to locate in Amherst because of the higher costs of substitute fuel, such as propane. That is hindering the town’s ability to execute ideas in the town’s master plan that focus on “relocalizing,” which means to encourage expansion of existing businesses and attract new ones.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the moratorium has created a hardship for businesses, developers and homeowners.

And Select Board Chairwoman Alisa Brewer said her board is upset at the moratorium, and is trying to channel this anger through Kravitz.

Last week, Kravitz provided written testimony as a certified expert witness to the Department of Public Utilities as it reviews a five-year forecast and supply plan submitted by Berkshire Gas.

In addition to a new business abandoning Amherst, and another that had added costs when it buried a propane tank on site, the public schools have been affected. A boiler at Wildwood School needs to be replaced at a $400,000 cost. This boiler would be less costly and more efficient if powered by natural gas, Kravitz said.

“I think natural gas would have been a top choice if it was available, but it wasn’t,” Kravitz said.

Kravitz said he is not offering ideas for how the moratorium ends.

“We’re waiting for Berkshire Gas to come up with a solution, and we’ll respond to the solution as to whether we think it is good,” Kravitz said.

Top choices, he said, are to increase the capacity of a liquefied natural gas storage facility in Whately or to extend a lateral main eastward from Northampton so that it can serve Amherst, Hadley and towns to the north.

But even in the best case scenario, Berkshire Gas is three years away from a solution, Kravitz said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.