HOLYOKE — The state is moving to claim ownership of the former Mount Tom quarry to stop the current owners from converting the 16-acre site into a clean-fill operation in which truckloads of soil would be dumped in the massive crater on the side of the mountain over the next 20 years.
Officials with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation are laying claim to the title for the quarry parcel under terms of the state’s 2002 purchase of 144.7 acres of the former Mount Tom Ski Area for $1.3 million. They want to see the land preserved in its natural state and protected for future use for outdoor recreation.
Under terms of the deal, the Mt. Tom Companies Inc., then known as the Mt. Tom Ski Area Inc., was allowed to retain ownership and to extract rock for a 10-year period. Once it ceased being an active quarry, the state was entitled to claim ownership of the property at no cost. The quarry has been dormant since 2012.
“The takeover is part of the long-term goal of (the Department of Conservation and Recreation) acquiring land at the mountain for everyone’s benefit,” said the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, Kathleen Theoharides, who oversees the conservation agency.
On Dec. 7, the state gave Mt. Tom Companies the required 90-day notice of its intent to assume ownership of the site.
Also in December, the state had to relinquish rights to acquire additional acreage on the mountain that had been owned by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke. A lawyer for the state has said inaction by the Holyoke City Council caused a deadline to be missed, and the land is now owned by Mt. Tom Companies. The company purchased the property, assessed at nearly $1 million, from the club for $100,000.
Mt. Tom Companies, meanwhile, on March 25 filed for federal bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11. That move brought everything to a standstill until the bankruptcy request is resolved in court. The filings show the corporation owes the city of Holyoke more than $300,000 in back taxes delinquent to 2013.
Theoharides, who notes the bankruptcy filing came the same day the state was due to take ownership of the property, said the Chapter 11 proceedings may delay but will not stop the takeover. A hearing is set for April 30 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Springfield.
“(The state) looks forward to completing the transfer of the quarry property abutting Mount Tom State Reservation in order to create a continuous protected landscape that benefits wildlife and improves outdoor recreational opportunities,” said Olivia Dorrance, a spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
The state hopes to enact long-term management and safety plans around the quarry, including warning signs and a perimeter rope along the top edge of the quarry crater to warn hikers, as well as installing gates to limit vehicle access to the floor below.
Theoharides said the state has always had an interest in acquiring the quarry, but the interest took on a new urgency last spring when it learned that Mt. Tom Companies was interested in converting the dormant quarry into an active clean-fill site. Trained as a field biologist, Theoharides is familiar with the Mount Tom reservation, having grown up in Western Massachusetts. She graduated from Minnechaug Regional High School before attending Dartmouth College.
Matthew L. Donohue, who along with Timothy P. Kennedy owns Mt. Tom Companies, said they are not conceding ownership of their property nor their plan for it. Corporate filings with the state identify their corporation as a “real estate and management” company.
That plan is to fill in the quarry crater, a hole that is hundreds of feet deep and covers approximately eight acres, with noncontaminated soil from construction projects around the region. The plan would be almost Keynesian economics brought to life. Where the company once made money digging a hole, now it wants to make money by filling it in. The project would take an estimated 20 years.
“We’re not talking about soils that are contaminated or dirty,” Donohue said. “It’s clean soil.”
Once the quarry is filled in, the mountain would return to its original slope, and the land then deeded over to the state, according to Donohue.
“The quarry is a blemish on the mountain,” he said.
Donohue and Kennedy purchased the majority of shares in Mt. Tom Companies in 2019 with the idea of filling in the quarry as a commercial venture. The company was once headed by Mary Rose O’Connell, whose family for years operated the ski area.
Donohue said there was, at the time, a growing demand in the market for clean-fill sites and the quarry seemed ideal. He and Kennedy, who are both Holyoke residents, are interested in restoring the mountain to its original condition and in removing the danger of people falling off the quarry’s edge.
“It would minimize the fall risk, bring back the mountain to its natural state, and make us some money hopefully,” Donohue said.
He cites a 2016 ecological assessment of Mount Tom by the Conway School’s graduate program in landscape design, which includes a recommendation that the quarry be filled in and reclaimed. The study says the quarry site is neither safe nor inviting for people, and the barren landscape is not suitable for many plant or animal species.
“Making the quarry area safer and establishing more visible management will make many more acres of land and trail available to the public,” the study notes.
At the same time they took over Mt. Tom Companies, Donohue and Kennedy formed another company, Site Reclamation, which on Dec. 30 purchased a 24-acre parcel next to the quarry site from the Boys & Girls Club. Under the 2002 deed, the state had a right to make an offer on that property, but when it failed to do so within a required 180 days, the sale to Site Reclamation went through.
Site Reclamation, according to its 2019 certificate of organization filed with the state, is in the business of “property reclamation and restoration utilizing soils and other materials to accomplish the same and any other lawful purposes.”
“There’s roughly eight acres of habitat that was lost to the quarry, and it was our idea that we were going to reestablish that,” Donohue said.
Environmentally speaking, such action would be a horrible idea, according to Theoharides. She predicts it would be a disaster for the many species of plants and animals that live there, as well as for those who enjoy hiking Mount Tom and for the Holyoke residents who live in the vicinity.
Since the land ceased being an active quarry, it has become home to several species, and protecting their habitat is important, the secretary said. There are peregrine falcons that nest on the ledges, plants grow in the crevices on the rock face, and wood frogs and salamanders breed in the vernal pools on the quarry floor.
“Nature adapts,” she said.
The secretary said Mt. Tom Companies has failed to keep the property safe, especially in the immediate area around the quarry where anyone hiking might not realize they are standing at the edge of a nearly 200-foot cliff.
“A bankrupt company had control over the site, and it didn’t offer any safety measures to protect the public from accidents,” she said.
She also cited the large amounts of noise, dust and truck exhaust the proposed clean-fill operation would generate and the dangers posed by the number of trucks winding along the narrow access road to walkers and hikers who regularly use it.
“We estimated there would be 23 trucks a day — for 20 years — driving to and from the quarry,” Theoharides said.
Donohue and Kennedy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in order to restructure more than $400,000 in debt, including $327,263 in property taxes owed to the city of Holyoke and a $93,000 loan from their limited liability corporation, Site Reclamation, they said. (The city had first placed a lien on the property on Oct. 22, 2013, for $23,791 in unpaid taxes at that time, according to records provided by the city.)
Also listed in the bankruptcy filing, although not assigned a dollar amount, is the state’s option to acquire the property.
The latest developments with the quarry site are just the latest chapter, albeit a confusing one, in the ongoing debate about the future of Mount Tom.
After the privately owned ski area shut down 1998, the 397-acre site on the side of the mountain was carved up. Some 381 acres were sold for $3 million to a coalition of state, federal and nonprofit organizations intent on keeping the site undeveloped.
The state Department of Management, a precursor of today’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, purchased 144.7 acres for $1.3 million, adding to the 1,800-acre Mount Tom State Reservation. The quarry was part of that property transaction that included giving the ski area corporation (which evolved into the company now led by Donohue and Kennedy) the rights to mine it for 10 years then hand it over the state.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased 140 acres for $1.1 million, with the property being managed as part of the Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge.
The nonprofit Trustees of the Reservation purchased 73.5 acres for $300,000.
And the Boys & Girls Club purchased 21.7 acres at the bottom of the former ski slopes where the ski lodge and wave pool used to be. That is the property purchased by Site Reclamation in a deal that was signed on June 20 and became official on Dec. 30.
With the purchase of the Boys & Girls Club property, which is adjacent to the quarry, Donohue and Kennedy own two parcels totaling 40 acres that are landlocked by properties owned by federal, state, local or nonprofit entities.
A review of documents on file with the courts, the Hampden County Registry of Deeds and in minutes of governmental meetings reveal a degree of intrigue not normally associated with a massive hole in the side of a mountain.
The $100,000 purchase price that Site Reclamations paid to the Boys & Girls Club was far less than the $300,000 the club paid for the property in 2002. It was also significantly below the city’s assessed value of the property, $988,300.
Matthew Mainville, vice chairman of the club’s board of directors, who handled negotiations for the sale, said the price received was fair. Mainville led the negotiations because the club’s CEO, Eileen Cavanaugh, is Donohue’s sister.
Mainville, who is also director of the Holyoke Housing Authority, said the club was seeing no potential buyers coming forward to offer the assessed value for the site. The club marketed the property via public solicitation and word-of-mouth, he said.
Site Reclamation offered, according to Mainville, to pay to raze several structures on the property that had been damaged by vandals and by fire over the years. The company also offered to make an annual donation to the club for five years. He declined to give the amount of the annual gift, saying it is the practice of the club not to disclose specific terms of “private giving agreements.”
Combining the $100,000 with the annual donations and the amount saved in demolition costs puts the total worth at around $300,000, he said.
Mostly, Mainville said, the club was relieved to no longer own the property. It purchased it “with the best of intentions,” he said, eying creating a summer camp for children or even zip lining on the property.
The club did meet with several developers who had ideas for outdoor activities there, but each one eventually backed off because of restrictions on use for the site and state concerns about the impact on possible endangered species there, according to Mainville.
“We are satisfied we met our fiduciary responsibility,” he said.
Mainville said the club notified the state and had meetings with representatives of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife as well as the agency’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program about the impending sale.
Under the 2002 deed, the state was to be given 180 days notice of any pending sale of the property and was granted the right to make a counteroffer. The state has said it received notice of the impending sale on June 8.
The 180 days passed without a counteroffer, and the sale of the property to Site Reclamation proceeded. One of the reasons no counteroffer was made appears to result from a state law requiring any state agency intending to purchase property to give the municipal government 120 days notice before the sale. This required notice would extend past the 180-day period to make a counteroffer.
This was apparently overlooked, because in November the Department of Conservation and Recreation requested Holyoke waive the 120-day requirement in this case. Instead, the City Council on Dec. 1 voted 12-1 to send the matter to the Development and Government Relations Committee for review.
When the committee met five weeks later, the state withdrew the waiver request because the sale had gone through and the matter became moot. In a Jan. 22 email received by the committee and read during a Jan. 25 meeting by Ward 3 City Councilor David K. Bartley, Marguerite E. Reynolds, assistant general counsel for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said her agency’s “right to acquire the parcel expired as a result of the delay (by the council), and the property has been sold to a third party, which we understand was known to at least several council members.”
City Council president Todd McGee said the council chose to delay the waiver on the 120-day notice because councilors were hearing about it for the first time and had questions. There were questions about the validity of the request and whether the council was opening itself for legal action by going along with the request, he explained.
The council was not taking any position, pro or con, by sending it committee, according to McGee. He said he had not been aware the state was under such a tight timeline. “We wanted to make sure we were doing our due diligence,” he added.
McGee added that he had heard talk about the owners of the quarry planning a fill operation at the site, but no formal request or proposal had ever come before the council for consideration. He also said he had not heard about the state taking steps to claim the quarry until contacted by The Republican.
Donohue said he and Kennedy bought the Boys & Girls Club site as part of their plan to establish a clean-fill site at the quarry. When they first floated the concept, officials with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, also under the umbrella of the energy and environmental affairs secretariat, suggested it.
For projects that would be disruptive to wildlife habitats, the state likes areas of at least the same size to be set aside and left undisturbed, he said. Donohue said their plan was to buy the Boys & Girls Club property and then deed it to the state at no cost in exchange for the clean-fill project getting the go-ahead.
And once the quarry was filled and capped in 20 years, that property would also be given to the either state or to the Friends of Mount Tom, he said.
“It’s a good project on many levels,” Donohue said. “At the end of the day (the Department of Conservation and Recreation) would be adding just over 40 acres, and eight acres would be reestablished better than they are currently because the quarry really doesn’t have a lot of environmental significance.”
Marion E. Larson, spokeswoman for the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said her agency discussed the quarry-filling project with Site Reclamation in early 2020. The idea about acquiring the Boys & Girls Club property to minimize the ecological impact of the project was proposed by Site Reclamation, not by state officials, according to Larson.
She added that officials with Natural Heritage “conceptually agreed” it could be a net benefit, but only on the condition that a conservation and management permit be obtained, which has not happened.
Larson said there have not been any other substantive discussions about the project with anyone from Site Reclamation since last summer. She notes that the state does not endorse any project before the completion of a regulatory review process.
Kathleen Fournier, of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Springfield office, recalls officials with her agency having attended a preliminary meeting and site visit in either 2019 or 2020. No official proposal nor any sort of planning document for the property was ever filed, according to Fournier.
Donohue said during a City Council meeting that the state’s move to claim title on the quarry so soon after it was shut out of acquiring the Boys & Girls Club parcel seemed retaliatory. In an interview with The Republican, he backed off from that position, but said the timing was coincidental.
“We this far have not had a lot of meaningful conversations,” he said, “but we’re hoping that in the very near future we can.”
He acknowledged Mt. Tom Companies has the issue of outstanding taxes.
“We’re not disputing the fact there are taxes owed,” Donohue said. “Taxes don’t get forgiveness, so if the project goes forward, those taxes will have to be paid.”
Theoharides said that once her agency gains control over the title for the quarry, it would be interested in acquiring the former Boys & Girls Club property from Site Reclamation. That acquisition, she said, would be the final piece in creating a continuous landscape across Mount Tom to ensure its conservation for outdoor recreation and as habitat for plants and animals.
“We’re not unreasonable people,” Donohue said in response. He said he continues to hope there will be some discussion or negotiation with the state on the future of the two parcels. In the meantime, he and Kennedy are trying to proceed with the clean-fill project.
“We’re going forward on our track, and it sounds like (the state) is going forward on their track,” he said. “Maybe we were naive. We thought (our project) benefits the state, the city and us. We believed it was something great. I guess we were wrong, but I don’t know why we were wrong because they won’t tell us where we were wrong.”