Quarry quagmire: Controversial Mount Tom fill project rests in bankruptcy court

  • Matthew Donohue, co-owner of Mt. Tom Companies, stands inside the quarry at Mount Tom. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Graffiti marks a rock deep in the disused quarry on the disputed Mount Tom property. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Matthew Donohue, co-owner of Mt. Tom Companies, stands inside the quarry at Mount Tom. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A concrete pad sits at the old Mount Tom ski lodge location, which is now owned by Holyoke businessmen Matthew Donohue and Pat Kennedy. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The entrance to the quarry at Mount Tom. Developers say filling the quarry would eliminate a safety hazard. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2021

HOLYOKE — Standing at the bottom of the Mount Tom quarry, local lawyer Matthew Donohue looked up at the 200-foot-high stone cliffs that form the large crater, describing how he sees the property: as a danger to visitors, an eyesore created by environmental abuse.

His plan, Donohue explained, is to change that and make money in the process.

Donohue and his business partner, fellow Holyoke resident Timothy Kennedy, have proposed filling in the old quarry, which they hold the deed to, with “clean fill” — soils unearthed during regional construction projects that Donohue said would be tested for contaminants before they are dumped into the hole. The idea is to fill the crater within 20 years or less, make money, and then turn the property over to the state.

But that’s not how the state, environmentalists and local residents see things.

Opponents of the project — and there are plenty who have voiced their objections on social media, with bumper stickers and at public meetings — have said the project amounts to creating a “dump” on the beloved mountain. They have raised concerns over the possibility of contaminated soils being used to fill the quarry and the environmental impacts of trucking dirt up to the property.

For its part, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation says the quarry project will lead to decades of commercial vehicle traffic, increased carbon emissions, reduced public access and harmful impacts on wildlife.

What’s more, the DCR has said that Kennedy and Donohue’s company — Mt. Tom Companies, which they took over in 2019 — doesn’t even have a claim to the property.

In a statement to the Gazette, DCR noted that the state acquired its option to purchase the quarry property in 2002 when it purchased more than 144 acres on the mountain from the company. That was part of a broader effort to protect 380 acres together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Trustees of Reservations and the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club.

The agreement allowed Mt. Tom Companies, then known as Mt. Tom Ski Area Inc., to continue quarrying operations for another decade, after which DCR could decide to accept title to the property.

DCR said it notified Mt. Tom Companies of its intent to exercise its option on Dec. 7, 2020, creating a deadline for the company to deliver to DCR the deed to the quarry by March 8. However, DCR said the company asked the state for a 30-day extension until April 7, which the state granted. Mt. Tom Companies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 25.

The fate of the property currently rests in the hands of a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge. In its bankruptcy petition, Mt. Tom Companies lists DCR as a creditor, with its option to purchase the 16 acres of quarry property as its claim. The company also lists its $327,263 in unpaid real estate taxes owed to the city of Holyoke and $93,336 in loans owed to Site Reclamation LLC, which is Donohue and Kennedy’s other company that owns nearby property.

“In short, DCR already paid MTC for this land and is entitled to the deed,” the agency said, adding that the quarry property sits in the middle of the 380-acre reservation.

“DCR paid the value for the 2002 Option to protect a variety of rare and common plants and animals and to provide outdoor recreational opportunities to Holyoke residents and the greater region,” the agency said. “In October 2020, DCR informed MTC that it believed the project will lead to commercial vehicle traffic and does not fit into DCR’s conservation and recreation efforts on Mt. Tom State Reservation.”

DCR said it intends to place signs and a perimeter rope around the top of the quarry to warn visitors of its rim, and to install a gate to limit car access to the quarry floor.

The state agency also said that Mount Tom Access Road, which provides a path to the reservation and quarry lands, will allow for pedestrian access to those conservation lands and will enable the creation of safe and permanent trail connections.

As the quarry case moves through bankruptcy court, opponents have created a “No Dump On Mount Tom” campaign complete with bumper stickers, a website and social media accounts. Donohue and Kennedy have responded with a “Clean Fill Initiative” campaign of their own, launching a website that pushes back against characterizations of the project as a “garbage dump” and inviting people to “get filled in” on the details of their plan.

Showing the property to the Gazette on July 6, Donohue said he and Kennedy never expected to receive such significant pushback to their idea to fill the quarry, which they see as in the public interest. He said their intention is to obtain approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection under a policy that allows the reuse of large volumes of soil for the reclamation of sand pits, gravel pits and quarries. The policy would require testing of the soils for contaminants and reporting results to the state, he said. 

“We want the regulation,” Donohue said. “We want to be overseen.”

Donohue cited a Conway School study from 2016 — paid for by Kestrel Land Trust and others — that says the quarry is unsafe and calls for reclaiming the land. As a case study, the Conway School report describes a Chicago-area quarry that was filled with clean construction debris before being developed as a park.

After the quarry is entirely filled in 20 years or less, depending on the market for receiving such soils, Donohue said the idea is to turn the property over to DCR. But he said the state agency has refused to discuss the issue thus far, instead invoking its right to the property in the interest of preserving the area, which it says is home to vernal pools as well as rare flora and fauna.

For his part, Donohue says that few animals live in the quarry, and that there are no plants or animals of concern on the property. He has pitched his company’s proposal as an environmental positive — eventually restoring the quarry to its former state before turning it over to the public.

“It’s really unfortunate that the property is in its current state,” he said. “It really is very barren down there. It’s used by people for vandalism and to have parties … and it’s dangerous.”

Environmental concerns

But those involved in environmentalism and land conservation disagree that Donohue and Kennedy’s vision is a positive for the community or the mountain.

In an op-ed in the Gazette, Kestrel Land Trust Executive Director Kristin DeBoer noted that the project would bring considerable commercial dump traffic to the area for decades, creating pollution, noise and congestion.

“The high level of commercial activity could create disruptions in the habitat of animals, birds, and plant life on the mountain, including wetlands now established within the quarry, nearby streams, and nesting sites for peregrine falcons,” she said. “Too many people — and other living beings — rely on Mount Tom for it to become a dump.”

DeBoer and others have also taken issue with the fact that Donohue and Kennedy are, as she put it, “resisting the rightful land transfer” that would expand publicly owned land on the mountain.

“That to me points to their culture going forward,” said Daphne Board, a city resident who is helping lead the No Dump campaign. She said she’s skeptical of the intentions of a company going into bankruptcy to avoid its legal right to follow the provision in the 2002 purchase agreement, which was paid for with taxpayer dollars, and what that says about their intentions going forward.

Board said she’s not confident in companies testing the soils that will be going into the quarry, and that the truck traffic will ruin what is currently a serene place for hikers and wildlife alike. She said that families use the quiet access road to push strollers out in nature, and that nature has only just begun to reclaim the quarry.

In April, Donohue and Kennedy’s lawyer argued in front of a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge that the state’s option on the property should be tossed out because it is not in the deed on file with the Hampden County Registry of Deeds, according to report in The Republican.

“If the bankruptcy court decides otherwise, then DCR is going to get the property,” Donohue said, adding that he had hoped to sit down with the state to discuss the issue before the court has to make a decision.

“If the court is forced to make a decision and it’s advantageous to us, we lose a lot of motivation to work peacefully and cooperatively with DCR,” he said.