| Peter Currier
SOUTHWICK – The Select Board June 14 voted unanimously to support the proposed Carvana facility at the Griffin Land Trust on the corner of College Highway and Tannery Road.
News of the project has been met with some outcry from members of the public who believe that such a large development would not be good for Southwick.
Douglas Moglin, the board’s designee for the project, has been the biggest advocate for the Carvana facility among town officials.
“We have a need for smart, balanced growth in the town of Southwick,” said Moglin, “This is a parcel that had been identified as a significant future development site.”
He said that the parcel is zoned by the town as Industrial Restricted and is outside of any wetlands areas or buffers. He said it also complies with Town Zoning Code Chapter 185.
One of the biggest attractions to the Carvana project for Moglin is the fact that Carvana is not seeking any tax incentives from the town, and they would contribute money to reconstruct the College Highway and Tannery Road intersection to accommodate the additional 2,600 vehicles that will travel through it each day.
“They are going to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars for intersection improvements at College Highway and Tannery Road,” said Moglin.
He said that the entire Carvana project could cost the company up to $100 million, and that they would contribute an estimated $900,000 in taxes to Southwick each year from day one.
A different industrial project had been proposed for the same parcel about three years ago, but Moglin said that they asked for incentives and would only have created about 40 jobs. The Carvana facility is projected to create 428 new jobs.
He said the facility would also contribute heavily to the sewer usage fund, due to the facility’s significant sewer and water usage. The plans for the facility include a section for washing cars with a water reclaiming system to mitigate how much water needs to be brought into the facility.
“They will be a significant sewer user based on the amount of water going in,” said Moglin, “we had been carrying a big chunk of the sewer debt service.”
He said the parking areas and asphalt would have oil/water separators to catch any runoff.
Select Board member Russ Fox spoke in support of the project as well. He said he has been seeing a lot of confusion and misinformation being spread among the public.
“A healthy community has a mix of residential, commercial and industrial if we are going to grow,” said Fox.
Also during the June 14 meeting the board voted unanimously to retroactively declare May 14 as Apraxia Awareness Day. Select Board member Douglas Moglin said that he had mistakenly neglected to add the agenda item in time to acknowledge Apraxia Awareness Day this year. He said he had been approached by a woman whose daughter has Apraxia.
Apraxia is a condition that affects one in 1,000 children and impacts their ability to learn how to speak. Moglin said that it requires intensive speech therapy for children to overcome Apraxia.
Also on June 14, Chief Administrative Officer Karl Stinehart said that he had received an email from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) to set up a meeting about the Cowles Bridge in Westfield, just down the road from the Westfield/Southwick town line. The Cowles Bridge has been under construction and subject to a weight restriction for more than a year.
The public outcry against the proposed Carvana facility intensified last week after members of the public and the Agricultural Commission gathered without a quorum June 16 to speak against the project, despite the meeting’s cancellation.
The Agricultural Commission had scheduled a special meeting for June 16 to formally oppose Project Baily, the code name for the development of a Carvana facility on the corner of College Highway and Tannery Road. The meeting was cancelled hours before it was scheduled to take place in-person in Town Hall. Agricultural Commission member Maryssa Cook-Obregón defied the meeting’s cancellation and encouraged the public to meet anyway.
Chief Administrative Officer Karl J. Stinehart said that the meeting was cancelled so that it could also take place remotely, allowing more people to attend and weigh-in. On June 16, Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation that would extend the period in which government boards and commissions can meet remotely.
“The project has significant public interest and many people wished to attend remotely to hear the topic discussed and the legislation to permit that continued remote format was just being signed by the governor yesterday,” said Stinehart on June 17. “So, a whole group of people who could not be there missed an opportunity to hear what was said. Had the meeting been held next week that improved transparency could have happened.”
A meeting of the Economic Development Commission, which took place an hour earlier on June 16, also had the Carvana project on the meeting agenda and was conducted in-person. That meeting was not cancelled.
More than half of commissioners were reported absent at the meeting, meaning a quorum was not gathered and Open Meeting Law was not violated. Dozens of residents reportedly gathered in Town Hall, with meeting notes being recorded unofficially by Cook-Obregón, though they will not be saved as typical meeting minutes because there was no quorum.
A Facebook group called “Keeping Southwick Green No Carvana” was also created last week in protest of the project. The group circulated a petition opposing the project, gathering more than 1,800 signatures as of June 20 at noon.
In an interview June 18, Cook-Obregón and Kevin Meder, the Southwick resident who created the Facebook group, expressed why they are opposing the project.
“The Agricultural Commission’s mission is to preserve the farmland in the community,” said Cook-Obregón.
She said the project would “set the tone for further agricultural degradation.”
Meder said he opposes the project because he sees the parcel as it stands now as representing the natural beauty of Southwick.
“What is with this continuous desire to take the beautiful land and turn it into something that may not be permanent,” said Meder.
He said he was struck by what happened in the public participation section of the June 14 Select Board meeting, in which many Southwick residents attended remotely to voice their concerns and opposition to the project.
“The meeting the other night struck me with how much people were tied to the land here,” said Meder. “This is worth saving.”
He said this will affect neighboring communities like Westfield as well, as large trucks will likely need access to the Massachusetts Turnpike, the quickest route for which is through Westfield when coming from Southwick.
Cook-Obregón said she also wants to see economic growth in Southwick, but that there should be other alternatives besides large industrial projects.
“This isn’t about denying Southwick the right to grow,” said Cook-Obregón. “I don’t think we need to resort to an Amazon or Carvana to plug a hole in the community for economic viability going forward.”
She was also skeptical that the figure of 428 new jobs was accurate or permanent. She also theorized that they would be mostly low paying jobs.
“Say it’s built, in terms of actual employment it seems the vast majority of jobs would be minimum wage. Are those jobs going to stay in Southwick long term?” said Cook-Obregón.
She said that she would like to see the parcel become part of a nature preserve that people could walk through with access through the neighboring rail trail. She said something like that could bring more people from outside Southwick who could spend money at already established local businesses.
“I’ve been impressed and proud of the Southwick community for coming together,” said Cook-Obregón, “This is starting to become a coalition of people who want the soul of Southwick preserved.”
She said she was also struck by how the opposition to the project has brought together people from different political leanings.
“Once the farmland is gone, it’s gone. This is the chance to come together to save it,” said Cook-Obregón.
The land is privately owned by Griffin Land Realty.
A Gofundme campaign opposing the development has started (https://www.gofundme.com/f/no-to-carvana-in-southwick-ma).
The message on the page read, “Please donate to help stop the corporatization of small-town America! The residents of Southwick, Massachusetts are asking for financial donations to hire a qualified attorney to advise and assist in preventing Carvana Northeast from building a 70-acre distribution center in the middle of our small town. Our timing is critical as the decision to issue Carvana a permit to proceed with their plans happens on June 29, 2021 at the Southwick Planning Board meeting. Our goal is to be present at that meeting with legal support and present qualified objections. This is our last chance to stop this project!”
As of press time, nearly $8,030 of the $10,000 had been raised.