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A Year Later, J.B. Paper Warehouse Remains a Pile of Rubble
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
02:14AM / Monday, July 31, 2017
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Before removal of debris can happen, a hazardous material assessment must be done.

Shortly after the fire, the city went in and knocked down the walls of the gutted building, and secured the site with a fence. Later a lien was placed on the property for the work. But, 11 months later, a pile of rubble still remains.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It has been 11 months since one of the biggest fires the city has seen in decades.

The sky was lit up for miles. Fire companies from all over the county descended on the scene to douse the flames towering high from the former J.B. Paper warehouse.

And today, the remains of that night are still piled high. In 11 months, there has been little to no progress toward cleaning up the mess left behind and the cause of the fire remains unknown.
 
The Health Department issued a "clean and lien" on the property shortly after the fire. Workers descended onto the scene, knocked down some of some of the walls that hadn't fallen in the night of Aug. 29, and put up a fence to secure the site so there was no illegal dumping or dangerous access for the public.
 
"Shortly after the fire we had the property cleaned up a bit and a fence installed so it was secured," Health Director Gina Armstrong said.
 
And then the city "invoiced any and all responsible parties" for the work. But that invoice went unpaid.
 
On Jan. 17, the city placed a $2,849 lien, signed by Board of Health Chairman Jay Green, on the property. In March, Mayor Linda Tyer signed another $2,035 lien. 
 
The lien is against BBM Realty Co., which owns the building, and Glen Binder, who, according to land records, inherited control over the building just four months before the fire. The building had been owned by Gerald Binder, who died in 2009, and he left it to Glen Binder in his will. The building wasn't insured, according to city officials.
 
In the fall, two months after the fire, Tyer asked the city council for funds to perform an environmental assessment. In that budget year, Tyer had asked for $50,000 for property demolitions, an investment she wanted to make to combat blight.
 
The City Council halved that amount, giving the budget just $25,000. But, that was before the fire to a large and historic warehouse.
 
In September, two months after the fire, Tyer asked for that budget to be increased particularly to clean up the land. That money was going to be specifically eyed for a hazardous materials assessment and creation of specifications for the demolition of the large Elmvale Street building. The council rejected the ask through a split vote.
 
"I feel this is a fairly urgent situation. We need to secure this property," Tyer said at the time.
 
Then she told the City Council that she had little luck getting in touch with the owner. She expected the assessment would cost some $19,000 and then removal of the debris could follow after. 
 
"We know we have an irresponsible owner. The owner isn't paying taxes. The owner is not responding to our certified letters," Tyer told the City Council in September. "This building didn't even have insurance on this to help us cover this cost."
 
The building was constructed in 1916 and fire officials said there wasn't much hazardous material — except what soaked into the floorboards over time as an operating paper mill. It had operated as the J.B. Paper Co. for a half of a century.
 
Nonetheless, before any property can be demolished and material removed, an assessment needs to be done to find out how much asbestos, lead paint, and other contaminants are present.
 
The city was expected to add that cost onto a lien for back taxes. In September, the company owed the city $59,935 for back taxes and unpaid sewer and water bills. The liens placed on the property would then be paid back once the property is sold.
 
Permitting Coordinator Nate Joyner, in the Department of Community Development, said on Friday that the city is currently looking for a grant to perform that assessment. He said a possible funding source has been identified and this fall his office will be applying for funds to do it.
 
But, Joyner says the city will want to legally take control of the property.
 
"There is an owner. They still control it. We don't want to spend money on a property we don't control," Joyner said.
 
In order to control of the property, a lengthy tax title process must unfold. Through that process, the city would need to get control of the property, perform the assessment, clean it, and then try to recoup all of the money spent through resale of the land. It could take years before all is said and done.
 
And this isn't the only site city officials are working on cleaning up. Armstrong said there is a working group consisting of multiple departments focused on code enforcement and issues such as this one. 
 
"Our agenda is always full with many properties," Armstrong said.
 
Meanwhile, the cause of the fire is still unknown. Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski said on Thursday that the cause is still listed as "undetermined." The site was known for having squatters entering the property. There was no electric hooked up, so the likely cause was accidental or intentional arson. 
 
Two days after the fire, State Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey released a statement asking for information regarding how the fire began. On Thursday, a spokesman for his office said no new information had come forward about it.
 
So the property sits there, with rubble piled high, possibly sending unknown hazardous material washing into the river when it rains, and close to the Dower Square Housing Project. A fence attempts to prevent access and trees have grown high enough to mostly block the view.
 
And it is still unknown when, if at all, some one will take on the responsibility for cleaning it.
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