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Taco Bell Permitting Issue Dominates Five-Hour Pittsfield City Council Meeting

A screenshot of a Zoom meeting
The virtual Pittsfield City Council meeting of September 8th, 2020.

Amid a pandemic, a rising population of unhoused city residents, the economic downturn, and a volatile national election, a hyper-local issue took much of the Pittsfield City Council’s attention Tuesday night.

The Pittsfield City Council met virtually for nearly five hours Tuesday night.

While at least a dozen members of the public called in to discuss the controversial cell tower construction in the Shacktown neighborhood in Ward 4, they would have to wait over two hours to hear the council address the issue.

The council spent over a fifth of the meeting – almost 80 minutes – in an exacting, technical discussion of a special permit to build a new Taco Bell on Dalton Avenue. Ward 3 Councilor Nicholas Caccamo led a thorough interrogation of the restaurant’s plans for parking.

“I don’t doubt that a 30-year-old off-street parking ordinance is probably outdated and frankly the calculations across any off-street parking ordinance is sort of obscure," he said. "And in fact, if you look at ours, we somehow determine that parking spaces by the surface area of a pool. There’s no correlation to those things. And that – off-street parking needs reform in some major way.”

When the council eventually got to the cell tower issue, it was to largely to acknowledge how little it could do to address it. The tower has been constructed at 877 South Street, and the council could do little more than refer a petition to the city’s community development board. Council President Peter Marchetti explained that the petition was intended “to increase the setbacks and to provide notification via certified mail.” City attorney Steven Pagnotta explained the impossibility of a second petition calling for the tower’s permitting process to be restarted.

“You can refer it and request that it be restarted, you have that authority to make that request," said the attorney. "Neither the mayor nor the zoning board have in my opinion the legal ability to undo the permit that was granted.”

Neighbors have organized to oppose the tower, contending it doesn’t belong in a residential area, among other complaints.

Later, another 40 minutes was spent on a pair of petitions from Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio, who was trying to remove two individuals from the city’s licensing board. One is fellow councilor Dina Lampiasi of Ward 6, leading to a testy back and forth that ranged between accusations of backdoor dealings and conflicts of interest to charges of pettiness and insult to both Lampiasi and the city itself.

“I don’t like to hear talk on the streets that this council does things behind closed doors, because I’m not part of that type of people. I’m not that type of person,” said Maffuccio.

“I don’t know what’s going on here!" exclaimed Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell. "I mean, it’s just – transparency – I’ve always believed in telling the way it is and being honest with everyone! I don’t know, I just – I’m not a good politician.”

“I have no issues with Councilor Lampiasi serving on the board," said At-large Councilor Earl Persip. "If the mayor’s comfortable with Councilor Lampiasi and the job she’s doing, and it’s really not about the job, it’s just about some people just don’t like she serves on two boards.  I think to make the accusation that it’s backdoor politics and the councilor has done something wrong with no proof, kind of using undertones that she’s doing something devious is a disservice to her, a disservice to the people that elected her by a large margin, I might add.”

With little suspense, both motions were voted down.

As far as the city’s growing concerns around a rising population of unhoused residents – Maffuccio put the number at over 100 – Councilors Persip and Lampiasi brought a raft of petitions forward that mostly focused on demanding reports from the city’s volunteer Homeless Prevention Committee. Councilor Helen Moon of Ward 1 questioned the logic of placing the impetus of the crisis on the effectively powerless, unpaid body.

“I don’t think that this is an issue that the Homeless Prevention Committee would have solved and would have prevented from happening," said Moon. "The number of homelessness incidents are rising throughout the country, not just in Pittsfield – and I expect that we’re going to see even more as we move forward. And so I just want to be a little careful there about saying that this wouldn’t have happened if they were effective.”

That same evening, reports circulated of an unhoused Pittsfielder taking his own life in a park. WAMC was not immediately able to independently confirm the death; Pittsfield police did not respond to requests for comment.

The council ultimately referred all four petitions calling on the Homeless Prevention Committee to answer questions about its meeting history and undertakings.

Since this story was reported, the Berkshire District Attorney’s office confirmed the death of 33-year-old Derek LaRoche, who took his own life in Springside Park just after 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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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