Easthampton eyes vacant property fee to curb economic blight 

  • 87 Main St., Easthampton STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • 83 Main St., Easthampton STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • This commercial property at 67 Main St. in Easthampton, owned by John J. Moriarty, is vacant. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • 83, 79, and 77 Main St. Easthampton STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • 52 Main St., Easthampton STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • This property at 118 Union St. in Easthampton, close to the downtown intersection at Nashawannuck Pond, has been derelict for more than 20 years. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/22/2021 8:14:23 PM

EASTHAMPTON — An overgrown labyrinth of brambles and weeds has overtaken the front entrance to a once active printing shop. A tattered and sagging awning exposes rotted wood. A spray-painted red “X” across the front door serves to identify the property as a safety hazard.

It’s been more than two decades since the business Hurry & Scurry, at 118 Union St., dissolved. Now, city officials are considering an ordinance to curb some of the city’s economic blight and encourage better use of abandoned and vacant properties. Under the current proposal, owners of vacant storefronts would have to register their properties with the city and pay an annual $100 registration fee.

“There are prominent properties in our main business district that have been vacant a long time and we would like to see that change,” said Gwynne Morrissey, chairwoman of the city’s Economic Development & Industrial Commission, which put forward the proposal. “We want to encourage people to think creatively … Our goal is not to punish anyone.”

The Hurry & Scurry property is one of 17 vacant commercial and industrial properties the EDIC has targeted on Main, Union and Northampton streets downtown.

When the volunteer commission set goals for the calendar year, the city’s vacant storefronts came up, Morrissey said. During the past year, the group has met and discussed the issue and developed and submitted a proposed ordinance to the City Council’s Ordinance Committee.

This month, the EDIC sent letters to vacant property owners in the primary business district, according to a list that was updated in mid-June.

“Vacant commercial and industrial properties can degrade the vitality of local business districts, increase risks of fire damage, vandalism and unlawful entry, and can give rise to other public health and safety hazards,” the letter reads. “In the interest of supporting the welfare and economic vitality of Easthampton residents, protecting property values, and safeguarding against economic blight, the city is considering new requirements for property owners to register and properly maintain vacant commercial and industrial properties. This requirement may include an annual registration fee and/or quarterly building inspections.”

Hurry & Scurry building owner Bernard Gawle did not return a request for comment. Assessors’ records show that Gawle, who owns more than 100 properties in the city, purchased the building in 1999 for $80,000 from David M. Crae.

John J. Moriarty, who owns several properties identified on the list of vacant storefronts, also did not return a request for comment. His properties on the commission’s list include: 67 Main, the former Shark Tattoo shop; 72 Main St., the former Moriarty & Moriarty law firm; 77 Main St., formerly the hair salon Jenny’s Place; 79 Main St.; and 87 Main St., formerly home to Taylor Real Estate, which moved.

Working with the city

Easthampton Savings Bank purchased the former Bank of America property at 52 Main St. in May 2020 for $2.1 million, according to property records. While the bank didn’t have a direct use for the building at the time of purchase, the intent was to ensure that the future owner kept the structure within the style that complements the city, said Dena Hall, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Easthampton Savings Bank.

While COVID-19 protocols delayed movement on that property, Hall said the bank intends to collaborate with the city and the commission in 2022 to determine the best use for the building.

“Our intent is not to have an empty storefront in Easthampton for very long, that’s for sure,” she said.

The Ordinance Committee met Tuesday night to discuss the draft language of the ordinance. In an interview, City Councilor Salem Derby, who is chairman of the Ordinance Committee, described the proposed ordinance as a positive nudge.

“It’s a creative way to get the landowners to get something into the space and think about trying to rent it out or lease it,” Derby said. “The impact of vacant storefronts on the character and economic development of Easthampton is significant.”

Proposed ordinance

The proposed ordinance defines a vacant storefront as a property being vacant for 90 days or more. The annual registration fee is listed as $100. Waivers requested on the basis of financial hardship are subject to a 30-day review period. Waivers also could be granted for a public art display if sufficient public art is available, if it’s an appropriate location for the display and the city, and if the artist and owners agree to the terms of exhibition set forth by the Planning Department.

In crafting language for the ordinance, members of the EDIC referenced a bylaw adopted in 2016 by Arlington, a town of approximately 46,000 people. The town’s bylaw requires all vacant property owners to register annually for a fee of $400 and properly maintain commercial and industrial properties. Those who do not register face fines of $100 a day.

In June 2015, the town identified 17 vacancies in the center of Arlington, many of which had been vacant for more than a year. As of September 2017, the vacancies were reduced to five, according to Ali Carter, Arlington’s economic development coordinator.

Although there have been some other benefits to the bylaw, including gaining closer relationships with commercial property owners, Carter says the town still has vacant storefronts. During last year’s pandemic state of emergency, Arlington suspended enforcement of the bylaw from March 2020 to September 2021.

“This is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Carter said. “Some property owners will lease to less-than-ideal tenants in order to avoid registering their storefront.”

Carter also noted that art installations proved to be rather difficult to implement in vacant storefronts and that window murals are better than installations behind glass. Perception of the community is also something to consider, she said.

“There is also a perception versus reality issue, that is very often a property that looks vacant to a passer-by is actually under some sort of permitting or licensing process. It may be leased but isn’t tenanted yet because the tenant is doing a build-out or applying for building permits,” she said. “Also, commercial leases require more negotiations than residential leases, as the only legal protections that commercial tenants and property owners have are those enshrined in their lease.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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