With town’s future unclear, Smith claims 69-29 victory
SOMERSET VOTERS, angry about noisy and dirty businesses operating out of an industrial site that was supposed to be a staging ground for the state’s offshore wind industry, elected an ally to the Board of Selectmen on Monday.
Allen Smith racked up a huge victory, defeating David Berube by a margin of 69-29 percent. Smith’s election gives disgruntled neighbors of the Brayton Point Commerce Center – the former site of a massive coal-fired power plant – a second, solid supporter on the town’s three-member Board of Selectmen.
Now that the nasty election is over, the question is where the town goes from here. Somerset, a community of 18,000 people across the Taunton River from Fall River, is in tough shape. The coal-fired power plant, once the community’s largest taxpayer, is gone. Millions of dollars in stopgap aid from the state have stopped flowing. The offshore wind industry, thought to be the replacement for the power plant, is just emerging from a long regulatory hiatus. And residents, divided and angry, seem unable to reach consensus on what to do until wind farms actually start getting built.
Smith said he wants to help bridge the community divide. He said residents want to see a buildout of the Brayton Point Commerce Center, but not with businesses that spew noise and dust into the nearby community. He doesn’t have a plan yet for making that happen, but his first priorities are keeping open lines of communication and making the workings of town government more transparent.
Rep. Patricia Haddad, the local state rep, said a number of people have approached her about trying to bring the town’s factions together. She is giving that some thought, but she said state and federal officials could also play a key role in pumping funds into the community for infrastructure projects.
“One of the problems down there [at Brayton Point] is access, one road in and one road out,” she said. “What if we were able to build another way to access the property?”
Jon Mitchell, the mayor of New Bedford, said earlier this week that there are only a handful of waterfront sites along the East Coast where the manufacturing of offshore wind components could take root. One of those sites, Mitchell said, is Brayton Point, where waterfront acreage is plentiful and it’s accompanied by an existing connection to the regional power grid.
But getting to that clean energy future won’t be easy. When the Trump administration put Vineyard Wind on hold in 2019, it left St. Louis-based Commercial Development Inc. in limbo. The company, which bills itself as North America’s leading brownfield developer, had purchased Brayton Point for $8 million and invested $20 million tearing down the old power plant’s cooling towers and cleaning the site up.
With the offshore wind industry on hold, Commercial Development found itself sitting on an empty piece of property with no revenue coming in. So the company scrambled to rent space to other types of businesses. Scrap metal was trucked in from the surrounding area and then shipped out to Turkey. Another tenant imported road salt, which was hauled to local towns during the winter.
Residents were not happy with the big trucks coming and going to the Brayton Point site via a two-lane road, and they bristled at the noise and dust coming from the scrap metal business.
Commercial Development largely ignored their complaints, so the residents began mobilizing politically. They convinced the Zoning Board of Appeals to reject Commercial Development’s bid to expand operations to include other commodities, a decision that Commercial Development is challenging in Land Court.
Last year, Lorne Lawless ran for the Board of Selectmen against Berube, who was perceived as sympathetic to Commercial Development. Lawless eked out a victory, but only with the help of voters in precinct five, the one closest to Brayton Point.
In this year’s election, Smith trounced Berube in every precinct, but especially in precinct five, where he garnered 78 percent of the vote.
“It just shows that people the town of Somerset are looking for a change,” Smith said. “People get frustrated when they don’t feel they’re being heard.”
Commercial Development had little to say. Steve Collins, executive vice president of Community Development, issued a statement saying “we look forward to working with the newly elected leaders of Somerset and building a great future for the town.”