By Tracy F. Seelye, Express editor
WHITMAN — Dr. Carl Kowalski informed Selectmen via email on Tuesday, Oct. 27 that he was resigning as chairman of the board effective immediately.
“There are times, even in our current Zoom world when a chair must be available for in-person events and meetings, and unfortunately, I cannot do so for reasons of health,” he said in a prepared statement before the board met Wednesday, Oct. 28 with representatives of MassDEP regarding the process of site work at the former DaKor Novelties building at 602 Bedford St. “I did hold a [morning] meeting today because of its critical importance, but I can no longer do so.”
Vice Chairman Daniel Salvucci has agreed to take over as chairman for the rest of the 2020-21 term.
“I will continue to serve as Selectman, just not as chair,” Kowalski said. “I’d like to thank you all for allowing me to serve you as chair for such a long time, and I look forward to my continued service as a member.”
He asked the board to support Salvucci in his service as chairman.
Salvucci thanked Kowalski for his many years of service and that he hopes Kowalski’s health improves.
Following their discussion with state environmental officials, Selectmen decided against a fee agreement for a special counsel for environmental site work, opting instead to go with a licensed site professional who can work directly with state and federal officials.
Representing the DEP at the meeting were Kait Carvalo, who is brownfields risk assessment section lead on the 602 Bedford St. project and her team; Maryellen DeFrias of MassDevelopment; as well as attorneys Sean Murphy and Jeffrey Thompson who are looking at the property as a possible site for a Hope for Heroes project they represent.
Kowalski raised, as a point of order, that the agenda did not reflect any discussion of the Hope for Heroes project, only the fee agreement for special counsel involved in site work.
“I’m not sure this is the proper time to introduce people who are interested in making a project on that [property],” Kowalski said.
“The biggest concern that most people on this board have is that the town is not held responsible for any particular cleanup of that site,” Salvucci said “We want to be assured that, although we want that site becomes a useful site, we do not want it at any cost to the town,” once the board reviews the fee agreement.
Selectman Randy LaMattina said he completely agreed with Kowalski, noting that the meeting was the first any of the Selectmen had heard there was a project proposed for the properties, which included the Regal Property.
Selectman Brian Bezanson pointed out that Plymouth County Commissioner Sandra Wright is an acquaintance and they had discussed the Hope for Heroes project, with which she is involved, many months ago. During the discussion, they talked about possible sites and he mentioned the Bedford Street property, suggesting that Wright contact former Town Administrator Frank Lynam to discuss it further.
“I didn’t know the condition or ownership of the land, I just knew it was vacant for a long time and I thought it would be a good location,” he said.
Thanking Bezanson for his discussion with Wright, Kowalski suggested the board stick to the agenda and discuss cleanup issues with the DEP and MassDevelopment officials.
Interim Town Administrator Lisa Green said she has had discussions about the two properties with DeFrias, including the application for site assessment grants. Regal Street property would be Phase 3 and 602 Bedford would be a Phase 1 cleanup.
The town has no ownership issues as 602 Bedford is an abandoned property, but there have been discussions about risks for which a cleanup might put the town at risk.
DEP representative John Handrahan said liability issues are
pretty straightforward.” Should the town take the property for back taxes and sell it, the town would have no liability under the Brownfields Act.
“Most towns don’t take that simplest route,” Handrahan said. “Most towns … do engage environmental professionals, because what they fundamentally discover, through economics more than anything, if the town were to take the property, they often discover that if they were to do some of the cleanup work themselves, just doing the cleanup work would not make them liable.”
It would elevate the property’s value for potential buyers.
Handrahan and Carvalho stressed taking the property for back taxes was made more streamlined in that the previous owners of the property are no longer living and the former tenant never held control over the property.
Bezanson asked if the town could get access to the property —without owning it — through the courts to conduct contamination tests “to put in motion these possible conclusions” so that the town is not liable.
“That’s a question you’re going to have to have town counsel, possibly talk with the attorney general about,” Handrahan said, noting it is neither how most towns do it, nor the mechanism written into the law in 1998.
“This is going back to what I’ve been saying throughout this process,” LaMattina said. “I think we’re all in agreement that cleaning up brownfields in our town is a fantastic idea, but to make it so the taxpayers and citizens of our town don’t go on the hook for something.”
DEP representative Angela Gallagher said the targeted brownfield assessment process at the former Regal Shoe site does not require ownership or access for the EPA to do the assessment either via access or from a nearby vantage point.
“There’s no cost or fees associated with it for the town, the EPA picks that up completely,” she said. “You just have to make an application or contact the EPA for that.”
She said the Bedford Street property also comes under that program.
Handrahan also stressed that the normal municipal process of hiring environmental consultants to help with the site cleanup because “they know where the checkbooks are.”
“This is just the town of Whitman looking for pots of money — and they are out there,” he said.