WHITMAN — Selectmen will ask state DEP case manager Kathryn Carvalho to attend a meeting in January for advice on town liability regarding the abandoned former BFI (Business Forms Inc.) building at 602 Bedford St.
“In accordance with Chapter 116 of the Building Code, I think we should do something to protect that building,” advised Building Inspector Robert Curran at the Tuesday, Dec. 18 meeting of the Board of Selectmen. “In the interest of public safety, we have an issue.”
Curran recommended either heating the building, winterize the sprinkler system or turn the existing sprinkler system into an air, or dry system. But he warned it could be expensive and the Building Department has no funds to do anything with it.
“We don’t even know if the heat works, it’s been shut off,” said Town Administrator Frank Lynam, noting that town counsel has ruled the town is not allowed to deficit-spend to provide for the building, and there is a question of what the town can do with a building it does not own.
Selectmen were not willing to assume liability for the building, nor the cost of cleaning the site, which is contaminated.
“This is not a road the town wants to remotely go down until I was 110-percent sure that we would have zero liability on the site,” said Selectman Randy LaMattina. “I would say stay out of it.”
Selectman Scott Lamibiase suggesting condemning the building.
“I vote we put a big red ‘X’ on it, you guys stay out of there when it does catch on fire,” he said to Fire Chief Timothy Grenno.
The property was owned by Décor Novelties until its sole stock holder died 12 years ago, according to Lynam. A tenant worked out of the building, and payed the taxes, until June when he dropped off the keys and a hand-written note that he was leaving.
“We have no ownership rights to the building,” Lynam said, noting that the town does not wish to incur liability for the 42,000-square-foot site, which had been a print shop for years and is contaminated. He said the worst-case scenario if the building is left as is would be that the sprinklers would freeze and burst, the Fire Department would shut the water service down, place a red “X” sign on it, perform exterior operations only and “it sits there for 20 years.”
LaMattina researched the site on the DEP website and found that the site contains chlorinated solvents, PCBs, metals, oil and gas.
“It’s slightly shy of being a Superfund site,” he said, reporting that the cleanup cost was estimated at about $400,000 in 1995. “I don’t know why the town would even remotely involve ourselves with that piece of property.”
Lynam said the stockholder’s heirs have stated they want nothing to do with the property, either.
“Right now, we have this building sitting there,” Lynam said. “The electricity’s on, the heat is off and it’s sprinkled.”
Curran was asked to assess the property, which he did on Nov. 2, and report to the Board of Selectmen. He found that the sprinkler system is active and the water is still on at the building, but there is no heat.
A lawyer with an association to the deceased owner was contacted, hoping that it would “flush somebody out that would help us do something to this building to protect it,” Curran said.
No response was received and Curran conducted a second inspection, in relation to Chapter 143 Sec. 8, along with a Fire Department official and an engineer with no interests on either side of the issue on Wednesday, Dec. 5.
“The building is empty,” Curran said. “It’s broom-clean, it’s in fairly decent shape, the sprinkler system is on and if we don’t do something, the sprinkler system will fail.”
Curran said he does not recommend shutting down the sprinkler system, nor does Grenno.
But Grenno did suggest the option of letting the sprinkler system freeze and then condemn the building in the spring, letting it remain empty.
“This is a unique situation because, generally, we find out a property has been abandoned because the sprinkler system freezes and we get the fire alarm,” Grenno said. “This was brought to our attention after they dropped the keys off and said ‘We’re all done with it.’ In good conscience as fire chief, I’m not going to order a sprinkler system shut down inside a vacant warehouse.”
If an automatic fire alarm called the department there and the front door was found to be jimmied open with smoke visible, “we’re going in,” Grenno said. “The safest thing in my mind is the system is going to freeze and trip the fire alarm. We’re going to go up there, we’re going to shut the sprinkler system down and then [have the building boarded up] to arson standards and the building is going to sit there for 100 years.”
Earlier in the meeting Lynam distributed to the board several budget-related reports concerning the town’s fund balances, recap forecast within the levy limit and local receipts as informational documents. He also provided models of formats for reporting revenue and appropriations with historical information being “backfilled” by the town accountant.
“This is the first part of what we hope will be a more clear and transparent budget publication for people to look at and understand,” he said of the format he borrowed from Brookline. “It’s a good start for us to help understand the process.”
Lynam said he is creating a level-funded budget that funds what the town is committed to do right now and, based on what it would look like “if we negotiated things differently.”
Selectman Brian Bezanson asked if the town was “taxing to the max.” Lynam said it was not because figures are not available on the excess levy, or taxing to the max, until a couple of days of the tax classification hearing in mid-October or later.
Another town meeting would be required to set that tax rate.
Selectmen also discussed the Wednesday, Dec. 12 School Committee meeting at which preliminary budget figures were reviewed [see story, this page].
“I have to say, the superintendent clearly has his heart and his head I the right place at the same time,” said Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski. “They informed us of the state, at this stage of the game, of the budget deliberations of the School Committee.”
As Kowalski spoke, Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak and members of the administration and School Committee were meeting with the Finance Committee.
Kowalski lauded the “totally open, totally transparent” approach Szymaniak is taking, including the plan to open every School Committee meeting for the remainder of the budget season with a discussion about the school budget.
“I was really impressedwith the superintendent’s attitude around the whole [thing],” he said. “He knows what they want to come up with is a budget that will somehow satisfy everyone — probably an impossible task, but that’s his goal.”
LaMattina, who also attended the School Committee meeting said the presentation was “one of the most detailed budgets we’ve seen so far this early’ from the school district.
“Things look hopeful and I think Mr. Szymaniak and [Assistant Superintendent George] Ferro are going to be on board with working with the town to produce something sustainable,” LaMattina said.