On Nonotuck Street
Wetlands Dispute Alters Condo Project
Travelers driving along Nonotuck Street must be puzzled by what they view as one of the odder developments very slowly taking shape behind what is to be the future home of the David Ruggles Center.
The dark gray house at 225 Nonotuck St. which was partially purchased with $150,000 in city community preservation funds is scheduled eventually to be a research and historical center focusing on early Florence history, especially as its relates to the activities of the Underground Railroad here in the 19th Century.
Work on renovating the Ruggles house has not yet begun, although bids
are being solicited for the work.
The house was purchased for $190,000 from developer James Harrity more
than a year ago, with an agreement that he would retain title to the adjoining property in order to build a three-unit structure that would be marketed as work-living condominiums.
In conversations with downstreet.net, Harrity said his original intention was to tear down the house and use the entire lot for his commercial project, to be known as Old Florence Commons according to a billboard in front of the property.
However, he was persuaded to spare the building and sell it at an
affordable price for use as the Ruggles Center, a project spearheaded by local Florence historian and printer, Steve Strimer. In order to recover his investment and turn a profit, Harrity said he needed to retain his right to move ahead with his commercial venture on the tract.
As of now, the Ruggles house remains vacant while work continues off and on in constructing the three commercial/residential units to the rear of the property.
Because of restrictions imposed by the conservation commission, Harrity and his architect Tristram Metcalfe claim they had to alter the original plans, which resulted in the Harrity building being shoved virtually up to the back door of the Ruggles house.
In fact, there is a space of less than five feet separating the rear of the Ruggles house and Harrity’s structure.
“I’m thoroughly disgusted with the conservation commission,” says Metcalfe. The commission claims there is a wetlands area to the rear of the property, which requires a minimum setback or buffer zone. But instead of the required 10-foot setback, the commission, Metcalfe said, forced Harrity to leave vacant another five feet or a total buffer of 15 feet from the rear of the property.
Because of the close proximity of the two structures, changes were required in the design of the building, adding to its costs, architect Metcalfe said. Also, Steve Strimer says the Ruggles house will lose a window in the rear and its kitchen will shrink in size.
Both Metcalfe and Harrity say they are not convinced there actually is a wetlands issue, and certainly no reason to add another five feet of buffer to the prescribed 10-foot setback.
In an e-mail message, Kevin Lake, current chairman of the commission, wrote: “When the Ruggles applicants petitioned the Conservation Commission, several Commission members led by then Chairman Paul Wetzel visited the site. Dr. Wetzel dug test holes that showed wetland soils and a water level almost to the surface…verifying the flagged wetlands previously identified by the applicant in their application.
“The Commission cannot tell the applicant what kind of structure to build or whether to build one at all. The Commission can tell the applicant what is allowed by the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act and by the Northampton Wetlands Ordinance, which, among other things, specify minimum distances from wetlands for any construction. What size and shape the applicant decides to build or whether it looks architecturally proper is not something we can influence, other than explaining where the law says they may not build.”
Metcalfe says some water flows down a hill to the rear, but that does not constitute a wetlands area. He says the commission’s decision to impose a full 15-foot buffer is over-reaction and “is just insane,” represents “narrow vision,” and “no concern for logic.”
Responding to Harrity and Metcalfe, Commissioner Lake wrote: “…A couple of general thoughts on their comments: 1) The limits in the Wetlands act or the city Wetlands Ordinance are 'limits of disturbance'. In general, one may not do any work inside that limit... no excavation, no laying of infrastructure or placement of a walkway, not even the compacting that would result from heavy equipment, etc. All work has to happen outside the limit of disturbance. So it’s almost never the case that a building can be constructed at the limit. 2) The Conservation Commission is responsible for assuring that predictable egress (including room for emergency and maintenance passage) to, from and along any building does not enter the wetland, so any plans have to show adequate space adjacent to any building. 3) We actually have quite limited room for the exercise of judgment on such matters.....the law is pretty specific."
Meanwhile, Harrity in giving a recent tour of the construction project says that it appears that because of increased costs and consequently higher selling prices for the for the condos, he believes he will not sell the new units, but instead will offer two of them for rent and he and his family will occupy the third.
In recent conversations, Metcalfe said he will attempt to refine the final
appearance of the Harrity structure and the renovated Ruggles house to deal with the fact the two structures virtually bump up against each other.
Strimer told downstreet.net that so far as he was concerned the unusual configuration of the Harrity/Ruggles project will make “little or no difference” to the Ruggles Center.
In fact, he has already scheduled a symposium for April 16 as the first major event at the Ruggles Center, and he is counting on it being completely renovated and ready by that date.
- Edward Shanahan