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Editorial: Cut red tape on former Belchertown State School site clean-up

There may be light at the end of the asbestos-coated tunnels on the former Belchertown State School property. A push is on by legislators to free up state funds in a 2008 bond bill earmarked for a state school clean-up. It is way past time for progress here.

The potential for redevelopment of the former state property remains stuck 23 years after the school closed. The economy, and time wasted on a misguided earlier development plan, have not helped. But the big hurdle is cleaning up hazardous materials, which include lead paint and asbestos, both of which were long used before their health risks were understood.

The Belchertown Economic Development Industrial Corp. (EDIC), which formed in 1992 to implement a development plan, owns the property. The EDIC struck a deal in 2000 to buy the school from the state for $1 and handle whatever clean-up issues existed.

These are now very different economic times, and the clean-up is beyond the scope of what any reasonable developer would take on.

The state recognized this in 2008 and included $10 million for state school work in an environmental bond bill. But so far, there has been no plan in place to spend it on.

MassDevelopment, the state’s lead agency for financing and spearheading projects like this, signed on to the project as master developer in November. It has handled projects like the commercial and residential redevelopment of the former Northampton State Hospital grounds and Fort Devens, a former military base in Ayer.

MassDevelopment works in partnership with private developers, community leaders and state agencies. The MassDevelopment team’s first job was to lean hard on state legislators to free up some of the $10 million. MassDevelopmemnt wants $2 million now to get started and another $2.5 million the following year.

State Sen. Gale Candaras, who represents Belchertown, tells the Select Board that legislative leaders are pressing Gov. Deval Patrick to release the funds. She described the state school project as being at the top of the priority list, especially now that MassDevelopment is involved.

There has been talk the last few years of creating an assisted-living complex at the site.

Select Board member Ronald Aponte told Candaras the board wants a project that will “increase the business tax base, increase the number of good jobs and stay in character with the town.”

A Pennsylvania-based developer, Weston Solutions Inc., has proposed a 170-unit assisted-living center on an 11-acre parcel. Weston first expressed interest in the state school property in 2010, but has been reluctant to move ahead until the costly clean-up work is addressed.

Whether it is Weston or another developer that sees potential at the former state school property, the time is right to remove the environmental roadblocks to making something happen.

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