WILLIAMSTOWN -- Residents of the Spruces Mobile Home Park breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday March 26 when Town Manger Peter Fohlin announced that the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant the town applied for in 2012 had been approved.
With the waiting over, the Spruces community can look forward with greater confidence, even as many obstacles remain to their finding new affordable housing in town.
According to the notification letter Fohlin received Tuesday morning, the $6,130,000 awarded by FEMA will be used "to fund the acquisition and demolition of 65 mobile homes and two common building structures in The Spruces Mobile Home Park that were more than 50 percent damaged by Tropical Storm Irene." Each household also will receive funds with which to secure new housing.
Fohlin said over the phone on Tuesday that the town will be involved "hand-in-glove" in the process of helping the remaining 66 households in the Spruces find safe and affordable housing elsewhere.
"The immediate next step is to get a formal grant agreement executed between the state of Massachusetts and the town to be signed at a selectmen's meeting," he said. He did not know how quickly the state would present a contract.
As part of the town's unique agreement with FEMA, a portion of the grant money will go to the park's owner, Morgan Management, which will then donate the park, along with $3.75 million, to the town.
Carol Zingarelli, a longtime resident of The Spruces, said the sentiment in the room on Tuesday was one of relief. Not everyone was happy about leaving, she said, but "I think that many people can move forward with a better sense of what they're going to do in making a decision for themselves."
The entire process of acquiring the park, helping its residents relocate and then decommissioning the park must be completed within three years of when the grant contract is signed, leaving a very small window of opportunity in which for the town to develop new affordable housing.
"I believe we are going to have to work very hard, very purposefully to do that," said Selectman Thomas Sheldon, who along with Jane Allen, Chair of the Board of Selectmen, was present at the announcement. "It's not a comfortable length of time, let's put it that way. It's going to keep our feet to the fire right throughout that three-year process."
One level of uncertainty that remains is the construction of new housing, since the town does not have the capability to construct new buildings itself. "So a developer is going to be involved," Sheldon said. "And on what terms and how long it takes them to prepare the land and/or do the construction is partially beyond our control."
While several possible locations for new housing in town are being pursued, nothing has yet been determined. The town's focus has been on a portion of the 30-acre Lowry property on Stratton Road, but community support for that proposal may be lacking, since the property consists of valuable farmland and open space.
On April 24 the town will vote in a Special Town Meeting, called by a citizen's petition, on whether to place the Lowry and Burbank properties on Stratton Road in permanent conservation, or otherwise transfer 10 acres at Lowry to the Board of Selectmen for development (in that case, the remaining 20 acres will placed in permanent conservation).
Further uncertainty surrounds the agreement between Morgan Management and the town. Although that agreement was part of the FEMA application process, it will not involve FEMA directly, and is yet to be finalized. FEMA's involvement will end once residents are relocated and the park is decommissioned.
"The federal government has one interest," Sheldon said. "They want to get that flood-vulnerable community out of there. And they don't want to have to come back in a year, or two years, or seven years, and go through this experience again. What happens after that is in the hands of the town and, before then, Morgan Management, in terms of what unfolds and who gets what."
Questions regarding the future of The Spruces and the outlook for new housing were among many raised at Tuesday's meeting. Zingarelli said people were concerned about the process of demolishing their homes, about continuing to pay rent during that period, and about the timeframe for relocation, among other things.
Peter Russell, former chairman of Save The Spruces, which had sought to raise funds to purchase the park and run it as a cooperative, said he anticipated residents to have difficulty relocating, due partly to opposition in the wider community to developing the Lowry property. Supporters of that proposal, including a large percentage of Spruces residents, believe it offers the best hope of recreating the neighborhood atmosphere that has existed at The Spruces.
Zingarelli said many residents are ambivalent about dealing with FEMA, recalling the frustration they experienced when initial disaster relief funding was dispersed after the storm. "It was a tough thing to go through when you would walk into the FEMA office, and one day you had to do one thing and the next day everything changed," she said.
But she believes it will be different this time, "because it's much more cut and dry, as far as not having to see how much damage is in your home." Her instinct, she said, is that "it's actually going to be pretty simple, because I really do believe the town has taken the steps to work with MEMA, work with FEMA [and] the attorney general."
Now that the grant has been approved, Russell said, he does not believe enough support remains for transforming The Spruces into a cooperative, and he plans to disband Save The Spruces. In its place, he plans to form the Spruces Transitional Committee, which will work with the town to assist residents throughout the transition process. "The more people we get on this committee the better off we're going to be," he said.
Sheldon indicated that such a group would find a willing partner in Peter Fohlin and the Board of Selectmen.
In addition to enabling the Spruces residents to relocate to safer ground, and providing the town with funds with which to begin developing new and better affordable housing, another benefit of the grant will be the acquisition of the 114-acre Spruces property, which will be converted to open space, possibly with recreational facilities.
Scott Macleod, Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Division Manager at MEMA, said the town, as owner of The Spruces, "would be required through deed restrictions" not to allow the construction of anything that could be damaged in a flood. Those conditions will remain in perpetuity.
"The only things that would typically be allowed on property that is acquired for these grant programs would be things that are consistent with maintaining it as open space," he said. "So a park, recreational facilities - but nothing that could physically ever be damaged as a result of a flood event."
For now, said Sheldon, the town's focus is on the many details that still need sorting out before relocation and decommissioning can begin.
"The fact that this is an unprecedented phenomenon, if you will - the town prospectively taking over a mobile home park, having to deal with the decommissioning of it, and the people in it - it's new territory, so there's a lot that needs to be sorted out legally, procedurally and so on," he said.
"What's clear is that this is going to be a learning experience for all of us," he said. Regardless of the location of new affordable housing, "it's going to be an intense handful of years."