WILLIAMSTOWN - The Board of Selectmen on March 25 approved three out of four warrant articles for a Special Town Meeting (called by a citizen's petition) that will take place April 24 at 7:30 p.m. at Mount Greylock Regional High School. The meeting will be an opportunity for a community-wide discussion of the town's land use issues and will determine the fate of the Lowry and Burbank properties on Stratton Road.
Before a standing-room-only crowd in Town Hall, the Board of Selectmen - minus David Rempell, who was unable to attend - sought to navigate the legal and political terrain leading up to the Special Town Meeting, which will be aimed at facilitating a deeper discussion of the town's affordable housing and conservation values.
The citizen's petition, created by Sarah Thurston, collected 312 signatures and was submitted to the board of Selectmen on March 11. It called for a Special Town Meeting that would allow residents to vote on whether to assign the Lowry and Burbank properties on Stratton Road - two potential sites for affordable housing development - to a qualified holder, who would then be granted a conservation restriction that would protect the lands from future development.
In addition to voting on the petition article, the town will also vote on whether to approve a conservation restriction for Carmelite Fields on Oblong Road; and whether to transfer the "care, custody and control of a portion of the Lowry property" to the Board of Selectmen for the restricted purpose of developing affordable housing.
Article 2 at the selectmen meeting - to determine whether the transfer of land for the purpose of affordable housing could be approved by a simple majority rather than a two-thirds majority vote, failed due to a lack of majority support among the selectmen.
In her opening remarks, Chairwoman Jane Allen emphasized her position that the town needs to balance its long-held conservation values with other needs such as affordable housing, and that at this point, even conservation restrictions made on private land such as Carmelite Fields needed to be part of the larger discussion.
Open space, farms and forests are all important, she said. "But not more important than, or to the exclusion of, other needs of this community, such as affordable housing, education, economic development and town services. Property by property we are changing the character of Williamstown, the quality of life for its citizens and the future of this community."
None of the board members anticipated that the conservation restriction for the 39.5-acre Carmelite Fields would be denied, only that the timing was inappropriate for it to pass by vote of the selectmen alone.
"This pains me," said Selectman Tom Costley. "I've always loved that piece of land. I can't ever see anyone building on it. It doesn't make any sense whatsoever." But "we have to have this conversation," he said. "I think voting on it now and even passing it now colors the conversation that would follow."
Searching for clarity
Uncertainty remained as to what level of protection the Lowry and Burbank properties were given under the 1987 Town Meeting vote. Costley requested further clarification from Town Manager Peter Fohlin, who maintained his position that the Lowry property was not Article 97 land, since it was originally acquired to build a high school.
"What we have is everybody using the same words to suit their different purposes," Fohlin said. "What we should be saying is that in Town Council's opinion, and in the opinion of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court just last week [Mahajan v. DEP], land that was not acquired for conservation doesn't have the protection of Article 97 of the constitution."
He explained that transferring custody of the Lowry property to the Board of Selectmen would require a vote of the Conservation Commission and a vote at Town Meeting; in addition to those steps, he said, land under Article 97 protection would require a vote of the Massachusetts Legislature.
"For what it's worth, I would call it two different types of conservation land - two different levels of protection," he said.
In regard to Article 2, board members struggled to understand why they should be given the authority to allow for a change in the voting requirement for land being removed from conservation. Under state law, the town may vote to reduce the required voting threshold from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority if the land in question is to be used for affordable housing.
Selectman Ronald Turbin, while supporting the development of 10 acres at Lowry for affordable housing, urged the board to reject the article. Since the property was voted into conservation in 1987 by a two-thirds majority vote, he said, "it would only be appropriate to have it voted out by a two-thirds vote." He also argued that developing the Lowry property is "such a passionate issue in town that I wouldn't want it to pass by one vote. I think it would create an incredible division in town."
While reflecting the state's support of affordable housing, and acknowledging the severity of the obstacles presented by land-use regulations, the law also introduced a level of ambiguity that many found troubling.
"I don't see why the legislature would punt on this," Costley said. "Land use issues are incredibly divisive. Not just in Williamstown - across the Commonwealth. Why would they punt on this? Why would they give the option here?"
Turbin, as well, saw the measure as potentially divisive. "Anyone who's on the side of the Lowry property coming out of conservation will be voting on this," he said. If a majority is in favor of reducing the threshold, "then you'll have a majority voting. This is a subtle way of bypassing the two-thirds vote. That's the way it's going to work."
Despite Costley's and Turbin's concerns that allowing for the reduced threshold would lead to further division in the community, Allen welcomed "the opportunity to have the fight." Without Article 2 on the warrant, she said, "there is no opportunity for that. We have taken away the opportunity that we are allowed under statute."
The issue of a voting threshold emerged again in regard to Article 4, which consisted of the petition statement. Since the Lowry property was placed into the care of the Conservation Commission by a two-thirds majority vote, and the Burbank property by simple majority, it was unclear whether the article would require two separate votes at Town Meeting.
Fohlin explained that the Board of Selectmen could not vote on the article or change it in any way, since it was a signatured petition. "At Town Meeting you can make amendments to Article 4. You just can't do it here," he said.
Sheldon added that at Town Meeting "You can split it into two, with two different vote thresholds, if that is consistent with Town Council's view." He said later that he believed since the two properties would not be removed from conservation, the approval of the article would likely only require a simple majority vote.
The value of compromise
The vote on whether to transfer a portion of the Lowry property to the Board of Selectmen had originally been planned for the regular Town Meeting in May, but will now join the larger discussion. In an effort to present a more clear-cut decision for voters, Selectman Sheldon proposed an amendment to that article, specifying that the land remaining after development would be given permanent protection through the conveyance of a conservation restriction.
"I'm trying to create as clear and stark a choice as I can to the voters in Town Meeting," Sheldon said. The purpose of the amendment, he said, was to not "confound the issue by raising the possibility that the other 20 acres might become a phase two or a phase three of housing on that property."
Sarah Gardner of the Conservation Commission said she was "not sure that a third-party land trust would necessarily want to hold the CR on that land because the conservation value is so diminished." She said if development were to occur in a corner of the land, rather than in the middle, it would have less of an effect on the land's agricultural use.
Sheldon's amendment presented a compromise between affordable housing and conservation values, and pointed to the heart of the current land use debate. Some form of compromise will likely be necessary for any new affordable housing development in town. One of the goals of the Special Town Meeting, Sheldon said, is for the community to identify and discuss such common values as open land, natural beauty, the livelihood of farmers and affordable housing.
"And one other thing I value here that is less in the conversation, seemingly, is that we deal as fairly and responsibly and humanely as we can with the situation of the folks in The Spruces, who have either been displaced, or are in prospect of being displaced by one reason or another," he said.
Sharing the views of the select board and of the Town Manager, Sheldon believes the Lowry property "is the only way to fairly address that situation. It's the only property in play, if you will, that has the acreage that enables us to create a community somewhat akin to the Spruces community that they have lived in - with freestanding homes and a patch of green around it. So as I said, I want to make this as clear a choice to the community as it can be."
Prior to April 24, the community will have several opportunities to discuss the issues surrounding affordable housing and land use in town. In addition to meetings of the Affordable Housing Trust and other town committees, WilliNet will host a communitywide discussion April 10 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Mount Greylock Regional High School, and on April 12 there will be a discussion at the First Baptist Church in North Adams, hosted by Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, focusing on housing issues in the region.