Quarry quagmire: Controversial Mount Tom fill project rests in bankruptcy court

  • Matthew Donohue, co-owner of Mt. Tom Companies, stands inside the quarry at Mount Tom. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Graffiti marks a rock deep in the disused quarry on the disputed Mount Tom property. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Matthew Donohue, co-owner of Mt. Tom Companies, stands inside the quarry at Mount Tom. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A concrete pad sits at the old Mount Tom ski lodge location, which is now owned by Holyoke businessmen Matthew Donohue and Pat Kennedy. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The entrance to the quarry at Mount Tom. Developers say filling the quarry would eliminate a safety hazard. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/10/2021 8:00:08 AM

HOLYOKE — Standing at the bottom of the Mount Tom quarry, local lawyer Matthew Donohue looked up at the 200-foot-high stone cliffs that form the large crater, describing how he sees the property: as a danger to visitors, an eyesore created by environmental abuse.

His plan, Donohue explained, is to change that and make money in the process.

Donohue and his business partner, fellow Holyoke resident Timothy Kennedy, have proposed filling in the old quarry, which they own, with “clean fill” — soils unearthed during regional construction projects that Donohue said would be tested for contaminants before they are dumped into the hole. The idea is to fill the crater within 20 years or less, make money, and then turn the property over to the state.

But that’s not how the state, environmentalists and local residents see things.

Opponents of the project — and there are plenty who have voiced their objections on social media, with bumper stickers and at public meetings — have said the project amounts to creating a “dump” on the beloved mountain. They have raised concerns over the possibility of contaminated soils being used to fill the quarry and the environmental impacts of trucking dirt up to the property.

What’s more, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, or DCR, has said that Kennedy and Donohue’s company — Mt. Tom Companies, which they took over in 2019 — doesn’t even have a claim to the property. In December, the agency notified the company that it was exercising its right to acquire the land for public use under a provision included in a 2002 purchase agreement it signed with the company to buy over 144 acres of its former Mount Tom Ski Area for $1.3 million.

Mt. Tom Companies, which owes the city of Holyoke $327,263 in back taxes, has filed for bankruptcy to restructure its debt, and in the process is attempting to prevent the state from acquiring the land under that 2002 agreement. The company was previously successful in avoiding the state taking ownership of a separate property next to the quarry that DCR had an option to acquire. 

The latter transaction also generated controversy in the city.

DCR missed a deadline to make an offer on that property — an oversight it has blamed on the Holyoke City Council, which failed to act on DCR’s request to waive a procedural notice requirement. Donohue and Kennedy’s other company, Site Reclamation LLC, was then able to buy the property, with an assessed value of nearly $1 million, from the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke for $100,000. The president of the Boys & Girls Club is Eileen Cavanaugh, Donohue’s sister, and City Councilor James Leahy sits on the club’s board.

At a City Council meeting, Donohue said that his sister recused herself from the transaction and that Boys & Girls Club board Vice-Chair Matthew Mainville took on those negotiations. Neither Cavanaugh nor Mainville responded to a request for comment on this story, nor did James Sullivan, the board’s chairman.

In an interview with The Republican, Mainville said the price the club received for the property was fair. He said Site Reclamation LLC paid to demolish several structures on the property and also offered to make five years of donations to the club. He told the newspaper that those costs come close to the $300,000 the club paid in 2002 for the land, which the club was relieved to get rid of.

As the quarry case moves through bankruptcy court, opponents have created a “No Dump On Mount Tom” campaign complete with bumper stickers, a website and social media accounts. Donohue and Kennedy have responded with a “Clean Fill Initiative” campaign of their own, launching a website that pushes back against characterizations of the project as a “garbage dump” and inviting people to “get filled in” on the details of their plan.

Showing the property to the Gazette on Wednesday, Donohue said he and Kennedy never expected to receive such significant pushback to their idea to fill the quarry, which they see as in the public interest. He said their intention is to obtain approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection under a policy that allows the reuse of large volumes of soil for the reclamation of sand pits, gravel pits and quarries. The policy would require testing of the soils for contaminants and reporting results to the state, he said. 

“We want the regulation,” Donohue said. “We want to be overseen.”

Donohue cited a Conway School study from 2016 — paid for by Kestrel Land Trust and others — that says the quarry is unsafe and calls for reclaiming the land. As a case study, the Conway School report describes a Chicago-area quarry that was filled with clean construction debris before being developed as a park.

After the quarry is entirely filled in 20 years or less, depending on the market for receiving such soils, Donohue said the idea was to turn the property over to DCR. But he said the state agency has refused to discuss the issue thus far, instead invoking its right to the property in the interest of preserving the area, which it says is home to vernal pools as well as rare flora and fauna. DCR did not respond to questions Thursday or Friday. 

For his part, Donohue says that few animals live in the quarry, and that there are no plants or animals of concern on the property. He has pitched his company’s proposal as an environmental positive — eventually restoring the quarry to its former state before turning it over to the public.

“It’s really unfortunate that the property is in its current state,” he said. “It really is very barren down there. It’s used by people for vandalism and to have parties … and it’s dangerous.”

Environmental concerns

But those involved in environmentalism and land conservation disagree that Donohue and Kennedy’s vision is a positive for the community or the mountain.

In an op-ed in the Gazette, Kestrel Land Trust Executive Director Kristin DeBoer noted that the project would bring considerable commercial dump traffic to the area for decades, creating pollution, noise and congestion.

“The high level of commercial activity could create disruptions in the habitat of animals, birds, and plant life on the mountain, including wetlands now established within the quarry, nearby streams, and nesting sites for peregrine falcons,” she said. “Too many people — and other living beings — rely on Mount Tom for it to become a dump.”

DeBoer and others have also taken issue with the fact that Donohue and Kennedy are, as she put it, “resisting the rightful land transfer” that would expand publicly owned land on the mountain.

“That to me points to their culture going forward,” said Daphne Board, a city resident who is helping lead the No Dump campaign. She said she’s skeptical of the intentions of a company going into bankruptcy to avoid its legal right to follow the provision in the 2002 purchase agreement, which was paid for with taxpayer dollars, and what that says about their intentions going forward.

Board said she’s not confident in companies testing the soils that will be going into the quarry, and that the truck traffic will ruin what is currently a serene place for hikers and wildlife alike. She said that families use the quiet access road to push strollers out in nature, and that nature has only just begun to reclaim the quarry.

“I’m just a bit suspicious that they’re going to do so much testing of everything that goes there,” she said. “Especially with the potential of money-making … I think they’re trying to greenwash their operation.”

City Council’s role

The Holyoke City Council’s role in the controversy also has generated debate in the city.

In October 2020, DCR sent a request to the council to waive a 120-day notification requirement DCR must follow any time it buys property in a municipality. But because of the way the request was submitted, it didn’t make it onto the City Council’s radar until its Dec. 1, 2020 meeting, days before DCR faced a deadline to make a counteroffer on the Boys & Girls Club property.

At that City Council meeting, DCR representative Jennifer Howard spoke during the public comment period, informing councilors that DCR needed the 120-day notification waiver to acquire the property in time. Donohue, who was also at the meeting, questioned why the issue was being “pushed through the City Council” and asked that the council follow its typical procedures and send the request to committee.

The council did send the matter to committee, referring the issue to its Development and Government Relations committee. At-large Councilor Peter Tallman was the only member to ask that the issue be considered that night, with the remaining members voting to send the request to committee. Some councilors raised procedural questions about taking the vote that night.

“Why are they asking for us to waive the review period?” At-large Councilor James Leahy asked. “That might put us in some liability ... We will get sued.”

By the time the committee met on Jan. 25, 2021, DCR’s option to acquire the property had expired. In a letter to the committee, DCR Assistant General Counsel Marguerite Reynolds lamented that the DCR representative was not allowed to answer further questions at the full council’s Dec. 1 meeting.

“DCR’s right to acquire the parcel expired as a result of the delay, and the property has been sold to a third party, which we understand was known to at least several council members,” Reynolds wrote.

Committee Chairman David Bartley slammed Reynolds’ letter as “libelous” and “spurious.” As the committee finished discussing the matter, Bartley said Donohue and Kennedy’s project will be a taxpaying entity in Holyoke, as opposed to DRC.

“If anyone has any interest in Holyoke land use, just look at how they (DCR) totally dominate the north part of the city, but not just that, the west part of the city,” Bartley said. “And all the part around Old Basset Road. I mean, hundreds and hundreds of acres offline, never to be returned again for use because they have tremendous power.”

Donohue has said that his company purchased the Boys & Girls Club property to ultimately gift to DCR in exchange for operating the quarry fill project — an idea he said MassWildlife’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program suggested. The arrangement would fulfill a state performance standard for projects that could disturb wildlife on any particular land, calling for a larger parcel of land to be set aside to be undisturbed. At the committee meeting, Donohue said the company still intends to donate the land to the state, but “only if our project goes forward.”

For now, the proposed fill project, the future of the quarry property, and what becomes of the former Boys and Girls Club property remains tied up in federal bankruptcy court, where Donohue and Kennedy have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In April, Donohue and Kennedy’s lawyer argued in front of a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge that the state’s option on the property should be tossed out because it is not in the deed on file with the Hampden County Registry of Deeds, according to report in The Republican.

“If the bankruptcy court decides otherwise, then DCR is going to get the property,” Donohue said, adding that he had hoped to sit down with the state to discuss the issue before the court has to make a decision.

“If the court is forced to make a decision and it’s advantageous to us, we lose a lot of motivation to work peacefully and cooperatively with DCR,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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