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Property, Plastic Prominent In Special Great Barrington Town Meeting

This is a map highlighting Great Barrington, Massachusetts
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A rare special town meeting is set for tonight in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. WAMC has a preview.

Great Barrington, Massachusetts residents face two major choices at the special town meeting — whether to uphold a ban on single use plastic water bottles, and whether to back a plan to buy the land a controversial local business sits on.

“Special town meetings are unusual because it takes, I believe, 200 citizens signing a petition asking for it," said selectboard chair Stephen Bannon. “Or the town could call it, but the town tries to avoid it because usually we get everything done at our town meeting in May.”

The petition that called tonight’s meeting had 337 signatures, 137 over the threshold.

“At the last town meeting, the voters voted to ban single use plastic water bottles of less than one liter. A group of citizens wants to undo that ban," said Great Barrington Selectboard member Ed Abrahams. He says there’s concern that the ban’s attempt to send a message to global industries that use plastic will hurt local businesses that sell the single use plastic water bottles targeted by the new bylaw.

“It will reduce the amount they’ll sell to retail stores in that one town, it won’t necessarily reduce the sale to surrounding towns," Tara White told WAMC. "And it doesn’t limit people from going to the surrounding towns and purchasing what they want and bringing it in to use it.”

White, of Southfield — a village in New Marlborough, southeast of Great Barrington — is the executive director of the Northeast Bottled Water association, an industry advocacy group.

“Don’t just look at one industry and one specific thing, this is a global problem — we all know this is not just one product that we need to look at,” said White.

“It's impossible to imagine that we could have gone to the town and said, ‘we’d like to ban all plastics,'" said Marjorie Wexler, a member of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group’s environmental committee — the group that brought the ban before voters in May.

“What we need to do is get a message to companies who are using plastic," Wexler told WAMC. "So we focused on water because water is available in your tap, from your tap, you can get water. Everybody can get water.”

The other main issue voters face is whether to approve a $298,000 plan to purchase property owned by Gary and Kristin O’Brien.

“We’re not taking a penny less for this property," said Kristin O’Brien. The noise generated by the trucking company that she and her husband operate out of the Roger Road location just northeast of town has proven controversial with neighbors, prompting legal battles with Great Barrington’s zoning board.

“I still stand behind we’re 100 percent legal to operate our business as we are operating it," she told WAMC. "And I am perfectly fine with going forward to land court as well if this sale does not go through tonight.”

But there’s one thing both the O’Briens and the town want to avoid.

“If the offer is accepted then we are willing to take the offer," said O'Brien. "We are not exactly thrilled about the price, but considering the amount of legal fees that will add up, we are willing to settle at that price.”

“The reason the selectboard is recommending that we do this purchase is to save an awful lot of money on legal fees,” said selectboard member Ed Abrahams.

The money for the purchase would come from a special town fund set aside for property sales and acquisitions — in this case, Great Barrington would be using money from the $640,000 sale of the former Bryant Elementary School to Iredale Cosmetics completed in 2014.

“I mean, it is taxpayer money in that it belongs to the town, it belongs to the taxpayers," said Abrahams, "but money to buy the O’Brien property will not come from tax dollars.”

While registered voters will be given priority, nonvoters will be able to speak at the meeting too if they contact town clerk Marie Ryan. Moderator Michael Wise will determine which questions, if any, will be shared at the meeting.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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