WILLIAMSTOWN -- As public conversations surrounding the town’s affordable housing and land use issues have sprung up in recent weeks, the effectiveness of town government in representing public interest has come under the scrutiny of citizens on both sides of the boardroom table.
During a joint meeting of the Affordable Housing Trust and Affordable Housing Committee on April 2 - which was broadcast live on WilliNet and had a largely educational purpose - several residents expressed their concerns regarding the town’s plans to develop a portion of the Lowry property on Stratton Road for affordable housing.
The 30-acre property has taken the spotlight of local politics, with its dual values as conservation land and as a possible location for new affordable housing. It was placed into the care of the Conservation Commission in 1987, but ambiguity remains around whether it is protected under Article 97 of the State Constitution, which woul require a three-step voting process to remove it from conservation.
Several who spoke at the meeting sought greater recognition from town committee members, and also encouraged greater participation from the public, whose vote at the Special Town Meeting on April 24 will help narrow the field of potential sites for new affordable housing.
Two of the articles on the warrant for April 24 relate to the Lowry property.
Suzanne Kemple, one of three Stratton Road residents who spoke on April 2, believed the town committees had waited too long to seek the opinion of those who will be affected by development at the Lowry property.
"If you had talked to us who know the Lowry so well, if you had said, ‘What are your worries, what are your fears,’ you might not have been able to accommodate them, but you could have acknowledged that you heard us," she said. She said active listening needs to be a part of the decision making process.
Others agreed that initiating a public conversation earlier in the process would have avoided the misinformation and divisiveness that the community is now rushing to address before the April 24 vote.
When the committees on April 2 made their voting recommendations on the upcoming Special Town Meeting (regarding the two articles dealing with the Lowry property), Affordable Housing Committee member Bilal Ansari said he felt the vote reinforced the division between residents, who were still trying to navigate complex land use issues, and a more informed and more unified town government.
Ansari had been pushing for a public conversation to begin earlier, he said, "so that we don’t get to this type of moment here where I felt my hand was forced and then that we have this kind of split gap down the middle."
"Every single one [of the articles] is politics at its worst," he said of the non-binding April 2 vote. "It’s not the best that we can do here. But if that’s where we are, then that’s where I am."
Both committees were otherwise in support of developing 10 acres of the Lowry property for the restricted purpose of affordable housing. Town Manager Peter Fohlin and the Board of Selectmen also strongly support the proposal.
Responding to Kemple’s request for greater acknowledgement, Stan Parese of the Affordable Housing Trust apologized, but pointed out that the trust was formed only seven months ago and that everyone is still learning. "As this process goes forward, that exchange you’re talking about needs to be part of it," he said, "and frankly I apologize that it hasn’t been prior to this."
The April 2 meeting indicated a more public phase in the affordable housing debate that will likely continue through the spring. WilliNet hosted a community forum April 10 at Mount Greylock Regional High School, and Parese spoke at Saint John’s Church in Williamstown on April 7. On April 12 the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition will host a discussion at the First Baptist Church in North Adams, focusing on issues of affordable housing in the region.
Town committee members have encouraged the public to attend and participate in the town’s ongoing committee meetings. A schedule of meetings is available on the town website.
Each of the Special Town Meeting articles relating to the Lowry property will require a vote of the Conservation Commission in order to pass. While the vote could occur either before or after the town meeting, it is more likely to occur after, since the commission has not yet received a formal request to vote.
Van Ellet, who serves on the Conservation Commission as well as the Affordable Housing Committee, said the commission has not openly deliberated the transfer of the Lowry property to the Board of Selectmen, although a meeting had at one time been scheduled for that purpose.
"We didn’t want to engage in a wide-ranging dialog that was going to use a lot of our time (one) until a formal request had at least been presented to the commission," he said. "The other issue, I think, was that everybody was kind of on hold, waiting for the federal grant to come through."
Selectman Thomas Sheldon indicated that waiting to vote until after the meeting would present the commission with a clearer picture in terms of how it can best serve the community.
"I think the fact that town meeting will speak to this issue is going to be helpful feedback to the conservation commission if it goes on to that stage," he said.
But opinions about when the commission should vote have varied. In November 2012, just after the FEMA grant application process had begun, Town Council Joel Bard recommend in letter to Fohlin "that the Conservation Commission make its recommendation prior to Town Meeting." (In the same letter, he also stated his opinion that the Lowry property was not Article 97 land, since it was originally acquired to build a high school.)
In an recent email, Bard emphasized that the commission’s vote would be unbound by the vote at Town Meeting. "Whenever the Commission votes, whether before or after Town Meeting, it will act based on the judgment of the Commission members," he wrote. "Town Meeting cannot ‘direct’ the Commission (or any other Town board) to take specific actions." He did not explain the reasoning behind his original recommendation.
But as Sheldon pointed out, the commission’s responsibility following the town meeting will boil down to a decision whether or not to reaffirm the community’s position as indicated by the town vote. As of now, the Conservation Commission will have the final say in the Lowry debate.
Sheldon questioned whether the community has enough time before the Special Town Meeting, or even before the Annual Town Meeting on May 21, to make a well-informed decision. The delay in having a broader community conversation, he said, was partly due to uncertainty about the Hazard Mitigation Grant, which was only approved in March.
More communication is needed, he said, "but we’ve got three weeks before this becomes a matter before the body politic here in Williamstown. So I kind of agree, too, that it’s all happening not on a schedule that anybody would have projected. At one point I thought maybe at the May 21 meeting we might have an opportunity to consider this, but even that seemed like a very ambitious undertaking."
Ellet said he hopes the town’s struggle to keep up with the momentum behind the affordable housing efforts will lead to a reassessment of the process by which Williamstown places land into conservation, and a clarification of what is required to take it out.
The petition created by Sarah Thurston and others in March, which called for the Special Town Meeting, was an effort to reaffirm what many saw as the town’s original intent in placing the two Stratton Road properties into the care of the Conservation Commission.
At the time, said Thurston, the residents "were under the understanding that these properties were under Article 97. And the opinion letter from Town Council in November of last year that stated that these properties were not under Article 97 betrayed the trust that a lot of citizens who voted on that day in 1987 had, and this is a response to that."
"Part of the issue has been that this has been a learning curve for everybody, and we had a lot of questions about issues all the way along," said Ellet. "So I hope, if nothing else, that we can clarify the understanding about that particular issue."