Drain pipe dispute simmers between Northampton property owner, city

  • Northampton City Hall

  • Harold Willard addresses the City Council during a meeting Thursday. GAZETTE STAFF/Amanda Drane

Monday, July 17, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — A dispute is unfolding between the city and the founding owner of Harold’s Garage over a drain line that runs under the longtime Pleasant Street business.

“They’re doin’ me dirty,” Harold Willard, a 94-year-old crane operating legend, said during a City Council meeting on Thursday.

At issue is the drain line on the corner of Pleasant and Holyoke streets that the Department of Public Works needs to move as part of infrastructure improvements for a planned $20 million affordable housing project.

Mayor David Narkewicz said the drain line must be moved in order for Valley Community Development Corporation to build a 55-unit housing project on the old Northampton Lumber site — work for which the city has $1 million in MassWorks dollars to spend during this fiscal year. But in order to move the line, they’ll need to disrupt the northern corner of Willard’s property and procure an additional 20 feet of easement from him beyond the 10-foot easement in place from when the line was installed in the 1950s.

“It’s certainly not our intention to obstruct his business in any way,” Narkewicz said during the meeting.

Complicating the issue was the discovery of an “illicit connection,” DPW Director Donna LaScaleia said during the meeting, meaning raw sewage from Willard’s property currently feeds into the drain line and into the Connecticut River. Typically, she said, such issues are fixed at the property owner’s expense.

“We find these around the city,” she said of such connections. “In situations like this we work with the resident to address the situation and make it legal.”

While the sewer connection issue is a separate one, it compounds the easement dispute at a time when Willard is caring for his ailing wife and lining up assets to pass on to his sons.

Because the 6-feet-wide drain line already cuts through Willard’s property, the city has a 10-feet-wide easement atop the line, giving it rights to access the public utility when issues arise. LaScaleia said 10-foot easements may have worked in the ‘50s when this particular one was granted — when work was still done in part by shovel — but modern-day equipment necessitates more width.

Property owners can’t build on top of easements in case the city needs access to the line, and so the additional easement limits the family’s ability to develop the property. Private assessors have valued that impact at $71,000, Narkewicz said.

Willard called the $71,000 assessment “puny” and “insulting,” and asserted the city is trying to take away his storm drain for reasons that didn’t exist when he first built on the property in the 1950s. But Narkewicz said there’s no record of City Hall approving the illegal connection in the first place.

“I don’t doubt for a second it was OK when it was done,” City Councilor David Murphy, owner of The Murphys Realtors, said to Willard. “Illicit’s fine, as long as you don’t get caught.”

Willard said he’s concerned this whole issue is going to render his property useless. He said three years ago he was forced to retire when his wife, sitting beside him in the audience, came down with severe dementia. Now his sons, Daniel and Michael Willard, are in charge of the business and he’s set on leaving them something they can use.

“My property’s going to be worth nothin’,” he said. “I’m not going to give something to my boys that is useless.”

LaScaleia said the contract the city has written up clearly states that access to the business is to be maintained so that the round-the-clock garage can remain fully operational during construction.

Narkewicz said the city is within its rights to take the easement by eminent domain in exchange for the $71,000, but would only use that option as a last resort.

“We are committed to working with Mr. Willard,” he said. “We’re going to talk to him and figure out if there’s a resolution that helps.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.