Belchertown ZBA approves Surner request despite heavy opposition

Last modified: Monday, July 21, 2014
BELCHERTOWN — Despite opposition from about two dozen residents and a petition signed by more than 100, the Zoning Board of Appeals Wednesday approved a request from a heating company to install two 30,000-gallon propane tanks on Route 9 near its intersection with North Street.

In a 3-0 vote that came at the end of a five hour meeting, the ZBA approved a special permit that allows Surner Heating Inc. to install the tanks on land it owns near the intersection with North Street where there is a Diamond gas station and a convenience store. The land already has storage tanks for 98,000 gallons of fuel, including heating oil, which would not be permitted under current zoning.

During the hearing, Surner Heating brought in a team led by Mark Bobrowski, a lawyer from Concord who specializes in zoning and land-use law. He presented a two-hour case, together with members of the Surner family, the engineer, and experts in traffic engineering and real estate values, that he said was meant to address the concerns of neighbors.

After that, more than two dozen residents addressed the ZBA.

Lorraine Fox, who lives near the proposed propane storage tanks, presented a petition signed by 133 people stating in part, “Our established family residential area should not become an industrial park for dangerous material. Sadly, the character of the town and neighborhood will be forever changed.”

“This is not a ‘not in my back yard’ issue; these tanks should not be in anyone’s back yard,” said Bruce Klockers who also lives nearby.

They were among the more than 100 people who filled the auditorium in the Town Hall, the majority to oppose the special permit.

The question before the board was whether letting the company expand its facility to include propane would substantially change the use of the land, built before the land use restrictions were in place, thereby making it “more detrimental to the neighborhood,” according to Brian Gibbons, an alternate member of the ZBA who chaired the meeting.

Gibbons said he felt the ZBA had to approve the application based on the wording of the relevant statute. Even so, he said, “I wouldn’t want this in my back yard.”

Board member Robert Hislop and alternate Noah Pefaur also voted to approve the request.

Selectman Kenneth Elstein, who lives in the neighborhood, told the ZBA that when the original storage facility was built the neighborhood was not as densely populated as it is now.

“You are not obligated to approve this proposal,” he said.

In a written statement, Judith Mann of North Street, claimed there had been accidents at similar facilities and that an accident involving one of the large trucks carrying propane to fill the tanks would be “catastrophic, resulting in fireballs, shrapnel and vaporization.”

An evacuation zone required for the area surrounding the facility, she said, contains dead end streets that would require evacuees to go toward an accident before they could flee.

Dainis Grabazs called the trucks delivering propane to fill the tanks, “bombs on wheels.” Among those presenting the proposed project to the ZBA was Susan Surner who helps oversee the family-owned business. She said her daughter is building a home near the proposed facility and that her company would not do anything in the town they thought unsafe.

Bejamin Surner, who founded the company in 1963, told the ZBA that as a long-time resident of Belchertown, he shared the concerns of those opposing the expansion of his business.

“We want what is best for you. There would be nothing that I would do or my kids would do that is dangerous,” he said. “You are our neighbors.”

The hearing, originally scheduled for June 18, had been postponed at the request of Bruce Montague who, with Susan Surner, runs the day-to-day operations of the business. Bobrowski told the board that the delay was requested so that the company would have time to respond to all the concerns raised by local residents. The Surners also commissioned a traffic study in the weeks leading up to the hearing as well as an assessment of whether the addition of the propane tanks would affect property values. Both their experts told the ZBA that the project would be benign.

Before taking the vote, Gibbons noted that the project would still have to win approval from the Select Board and other permitting and licensing authorities.