Despite contamination concerns, former Northampton King Street car dealership lot eyed for development

Tuesday, July 22, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — City and state officials said Monday that contamination in the ground at a former Honda dealership on King Street is not thwarting efforts to redevelop the site.

State Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Catherine Skiba said Monday that the 171-187 King St. lot that was a former Honda dealership is in compliance with DEP regulations after a clean-up paving job in November. The site had been used as a railroad junk yard from 1928 to 1965.

Meanwhile, Director of Economic Development Terry Masterson said the contamination is not vaporous, is confined to the site, and has been paved over, an acceptable sealing technique.

“It’s not going to leave the property and leak away,” he said.

Masterson said there are several types of businesses that could thrive there, noting that the city is eager to see it developed.

“We are very bullish about the site because of its prime location,” he said. “We think there are uses that could do very well on that property.”

City Council President William Dwight said city officials aim to see some type of tax-revenue-generating enterprise as soon as possible despite the fact that portions of the soil in the lot are contaminated with PCBs and lead, according to a 2005 inspection by HTE Northeast Inc, of Bedford, N.H. done when the lot’s owner, Don Lia, attempted to sell it in 2005.

In a related matter, a pretrial conference has been set for Tuesday regarding a civil lawsuit filed by Lia in Hampshire Superior Court in 2009 against Environmental Compliance Services and the property’s former owner, Massachusetts Electric Co. The suit alleges that ECS had inspected the property before Lia bought it in 2001, but failed to reveal the contamination, giving the lot a clean bill of health.

According to the Hampshire County Registry of Deeds, Lia purchased the property for $710,000 from Massachusetts Electric Co. in 2001.

Messages left for Lia at his office in New York were not returned.

The DEP fined Lia $15,000 in November of 2013 after an audit determined that some of the pavement at the site hadn’t been maintained properly in spots to prevent exposure to the contaminated soil beneath.

Since, then, according to the DEP and a report by Sharon, Massachusetts environmental consulting firm, Envirotrac, the affected areas have been re-paved, which Skiba says eliminates the danger of exposure as long as that asphalt barrier is intact.

That repair work was done by Duffy & Willard Paving of Florence on Nov. 20, 2013, according to the Envirotrac report. It is that work that brings the property into DEP compliance.

As long as the asphalt barrier remains intact preventing access to the contaminated soil below, redevelopment is possible at the site, according to Skiba.

A structure without a basement could be erected on top of the site as it now stands, according Skiba, but for a project that would require some excavation, the work would have to supervised to ensure it is done in compliance with DEP regulations due to the contaminated soil beneath.

Masterson said there is already infrastructure on the 5.36 acre lot which would make connections to city water and sewer lines and the electrical grid possible without necessarily exposing large portions of the soil.

If there is digging to be done, Masterson said it would likely be limited to what is necessary to make utility connections or foundation footings — and wouldn’t require the dredging up of the entire parcel.

Masterson said that over the past two or three years and as recently as six months ago, people have expressed interest in buying the property.

“The site is a strong candidate for similar types of businesses that are on King Street now,” he said.

Current King Street businesses include restaurants, banks, offices and stand-alone retail stores, among others.

Masterson said, ultimately, it will be Lia’s decision to whom he sells the property.

In 2007, the site had been considered as the location of a commercial center that called for two banks, a coffee shop and medical, office and retail space.

That project was developed by Berkshire Noho, LLC but was soon scrapped. Unfavorable zoning requirements and pushback from Cooley Dickinson Hospital were the reasons cited for the project’s demise, according a Gazette article in 2009.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) is a man-made organic chemical used in a variety of applications until their manufacture was banned in 1979.

“PCBs were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications including electrical, heat transfer, and hydraulic equipment; as plasticizers in paints, plastics, and rubber products; in pigments, dyes, and carbonless copy paper; and many other industrial applications,” according to the EPA.

PCBs do not readily break down and can remain for long periods of time in air, water and soil, according to the EPA.

PCBs can also accumulate in leaves and plants and be absorbed by the bodies of small organisms and fish, potentially exposing people who eat those fish to those chemicals.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.