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South Hadley approves earth removal limits, Falls revitalization plan 

  • Town Moderator John Hine stands at the podium at a South Hadley special Town Meeting on Wednesday. Seated in front of him are Select Board members and Town Administrator Mike Sullivan. STAFF PHOTO/JACQUELYN VOGHEL



Staff Writer
Thursday, November 21, 2019

SOUTH HADLEY — Voters passed all 16 articles presented at a special Town Meeting on Wednesday, including a contentious bylaw placing stricter limitations on earth removal and the endorsement of a plan to revitalize South Hadley Falls.

The article calling for stricter earth removal permit requirements sparked an hour of debate and an amendment before it passed 53-35.

The bylaw, which began as a citizens’ petition brought to town government, intends “to permit reasonable removal of earth for agriculture, residential, business, and industrial uses” while protecting the town’s land and resources, such as the Fire District 2 aquifer under Dry Brook Hill. Under the new bylaw, anyone seeking to carry out earth excavation activities must receive an earth removal permit from the Planning Board, with some exceptions.

The new bylaw originally made exemptions for earth removal related to landscaping or clearing if the earth removed “does not exceed 10 cubic yards per acre of land in one calendar year,” whether the earth is transported off the lot or kept within it. Voters passed a bylaw amendment changing the 10 cubic yards limit to 100 cubic yards after some residents said the limitations were too strict.

Other conditional exemptions include earth removal required for the permitted construction of building foundations, pools, driveways and walks. Preexisting sand and gravel pit operations with proper permits will not be affected by the bylaw.

Some Town Meeting members opposed the legislation because they said that its parameters were too strict and that existing regulations are sufficient. Peter McAvoy was among those opposed to the legislation, which he said would create a “bureaucratic nightmare” for homeowners.

James Canning, a Town Meeting member and vice chairman of the Conservation Commission, countered that “the law is written in such a way that we’re sure that there would be no limit to a reasonable removal of sand and gravel to build a building or home.”

The bylaw is designed to prevent people from buying land “with the expressed purpose of putting a building or a home on it” from later “changing the picture so that they begin to mine it for gravel and sand,” he said.

Planning Board and Town Meeting member Joanna Brown also voiced support for the bylaw.

“Currently, I do not see that there is any adequate protection to keep mining operations from buying land and mining as much material as they want,” she said.

The bylaw was proposed after Chicopee Concrete Service, the owner of a sand and gravel pit, filed an application to expand its existing operations last year. The proposed project would have removed almost 2 million cubic yards from Dry Brook Hill, which some town residents said would place the Fire District 2 water source at risk of contamination. The company eventually withdrew the application, but proposed a residential development, North Pole Estates, that drew similar concerns due to its location over the aquifer. The development is under review by the Planning Board.

Town Meeting member Kurt Schenker criticized the bylaw as a “knee-jerk reaction” to one project and said he is concerned it will pose a major expense to anyone pursuing a construction process.

But Town Meeting member Kathleen Davis said it’s imperative to protect the aquifer.

“Once you damage it, it is done … We lose our water supply, we lose our water supply,” she said. “So I think we need to be conscientious here.”

Voters unanimously endorsed the Urban Redevelopment and Renewal Plan, a 20-year effort centered on revitalizing the Falls neighborhood through economic growth and increased housing options, primarily funded by the state and private developers. Frank DeToma, chairman of the town’s Redevelopment Authority, previously said the project will require “tens of millions of dollars” in funding.

The plan is the latest effort to restore the Falls to the economic center of town that it was in decades past. The past 10 years have “seen little private redevelopment and several businesses close in the Falls,” according to the plan, despite previous efforts.

Among other initiatives, the plan calls for the acquisition of 28 parcels; assembly of 10 new parcels; 33 new residential units; nine new commercial, residential, mixed-use and municipal structures; and rehabilitation and demolition of other structures.

The passage of the article, which was approved by a unanimous vote, only endorses the plan and does not allocate any funding.

Voters also unanimously agreed to allocate $66,438 to South Hadley Public Schools to compensate for budget shortfalls in fiscal year 2020.

The schools are “running on fumes this year” due to a $950,000 budget shortfall, said Superintendent Nick Young. The district has cut more than 70 positions in the past eight years, Young said, “including a massive reduction last year,” and he anticipates further losses.

With the unanimous passage of another article, voters also elected to adopt state legislation to establish a five-member Commission on Disabilities in town. The warrant included 18 articles, but no motions were made on the final two.