WILLIAMSTOWN - A new affordable housing steering committee, made up of the chairs of several town boards, had its first meeting on Monday, May 20.
The committee's purpose is to improve communication among the various town boards that have been involved in efforts to provide new affordable housing in town, and to facilitate the public's involvement in that process.
Facing each other at the boardroom table (a change from the usual protocol, where the board faces the audience), the members reflected on the past six months following the town's application for a FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant, further defined the role of the new committee, and established a long-needed set of goals.
The town's decision at two Special Town Meetings on April 24 and at the Annual Town Meeting last Tuesday to table all of the articles related to the Lowry property on Stratton Road has given the community and town boards more time to investigate the various sites and alternatives for new affordable housing. The next Town Meeting will likely be held next fall.
David Rempell, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, had requested that Vice Chair Jane Allen appoint the members of the new board, which is tentatively named the Long-Term Coordinating Committee.
On May 13, the selectmen approved the committee's formation, as well as the formation of the Spruces Land Use Committee, which will investigate future uses of the Spruces Mobile Home Park, and the Public Safety Building Study Committee, which will investigate new locations for the town's police station.
The members of the steering committee are Beth Phelps (Agricultural Commission), Catharine Yamamoto (Affordable Housing Committee), Henry Art (Conservation Commission), Pam Berger (Council on Aging), Mark Reinhardt (Housing Authority) and Ann McCallum (Planning Board), with Allen serving as chair. All of the members will continue serving after their boards' memberships turn over in July.
"Right away we can look around this table and we can put people in a camp," said McCallum shortly after the meeting began. "And from my camp side, it looks like the assumption from the very first minute was to build on the Lowry property."
Following the town's application for the FEMA grant last November, the 30-acre Lowry property, with its dual values as conservation land and as a potential site for single-unit homes to replace those lost at The Spruces during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, became the center of ongoing debate in the community.
The grant was approved in March and the Board of Selectmen authorized its acceptance by Town Manager Peter Fohlin on May 13. Under the terms of the grant, there will be a three-year window in which for the town to relocate the remaining Spruces residents and decommission the park. Town committees will need to accelerate their work in order to provide new housing by that deadline.
The primary goal of the new committee will be to present a recommendation on post-Irene replacement housing options to the Board of Selectmen before the next Town Meeting. To meet that goal, the committee members will seek to coordinate the work of their various boards, objectively analyze all of the proposed sites for affordable housing, and set a timeline for future action.
McCallum has created conceptual plans for several sites, but felt the plan created for Lowry, designed by Guntlow and Associates, received undue attention. Those who supported looking at the other sites, she said, found themselves needing to fight to be heard. The citizen's petition calling for the Lowry and Burbank properties on Stratton Road to be placed into more permanent conservation - and which led to the first Special Town Meeting - was a result of that imbalance, she said.
"So the lesson I learned from that is that this group should be very careful to treat all sites equally," she said.
Other members agreed that there had been an unbalanced push for developing new housing at the Lowry property, at the expense of evaluating the other sites, and of the committees themselves, which became entrenched in that one discussion.
Yamamoto objected to being placed into a camp, she said, since the Affordable Housing Committee has been looking at all of the available sites, not just Lowry. The Water Street and Photech sites had been the committee's priorities all along, she said, since they were the most ready for development.
"The game changer was when Peter announced the grant in November of '12 and mentioned the Lowry property in conjunction with that grant as a possible site," she said. "The Affordable Housing Committee has always been considering Lowry but it was further down the list."
At its next meeting, the Affordable Housing Committee will begin the process of issuing either a Request for Proposal or a Request for Quotation for the 1.3-acre site at 59 Water St., where contaminated soil has been removed, and the next phase of development is ready to begin.
The Affordable Housing Committee also has discussed forming a citizen's advisory group, holding listening sessions and utilizing events such as the weekly Farmers' Market and Summer Sundays on Spring Street to reach out to the community.
But the town's efforts so far to use its available resources to keep the public involved and informed have not been entirely successful. Several at the meeting on Tuesday had observed an element of disinformation and misunderstanding underlying the land use and affordable housing debate.
"All kinds of narratives have circulated through this town," said Reinhardt, "and I think it's important when we talk about breaking that down, to understand that that's got to be broken down on all sides. I think one thing I have learned from all that is that facts matter. There are crazy facts that are circulating sometimes."
As one example of information that he believed was misleading, Art mentioned an unofficial survey conducted earlier in the spring that suggested there were waitlists for housing on properties that have not yet been approved for development.
He said the steering committee should work to "abandon this kind of stuff and get back to the basics. Get back to square one."
In addition to providing accurate information about its own activities, and working more closely with residents of the Spruces, whose opinions are vital in determining the town's immediate housing needs, the group will also focus on facilitating communication among the committees themselves.
One question that came up was whether the new committee would address the issue of how to spend the grant money - or whether it would focus entirely on the issues of affordable housing. Art pointed out that one common misperception has been that the two issues are one and the same.
The community faces the immediate needs of the Spruces residents but also a longstanding shortage of elderly, low-income housing. Implementing the grant will be the responsibility of the selectmen, Allen said, while issues related to affordable housing will remain the responsibility of the Affordable Housing Committee.
"But it doesn't mean that we can't support one another," she said. Some of the tasks of the various committees could be shared by the steering committee, "while we still go back to our committees to do the work that we need to do."
In light of the apparent divisions in town and between town boards, Reinhardt said, the legitimacy of the group's final recommendation will depend on evaluating all of the sites equally. He emphasized the need for the committee to base its recommendations not only on the town's contractual obligation with FEMA, but on doing what is right for the community in both the short and long terms.
"We should not be able to predict what the site is that we recommend, and nobody should be able to feel that we took half the sites off the table before we even did it," he said. "We will not necessarily have good policy and we certainly won't have legitimacy if we don't look at all of the sites collectively as part of it."
Several members of the audience voiced their opinions on how the new committee should function and what issues it should consider.
Sarah Thurston of Stratton Road, who initiated the citizen's petition to apply a conservation restriction to the Lowry and Burbank properties, has consulted a variety of experts to develop a sense of the alternatives for affordable housing. She suggested that the work she and other residents have done could be "a great jumping off point for the work of the new committee."
"I know that maybe some people think that we're completely skewed in one direction but we try to get really unbiased numbers and we tried to consult with as many smart, well-rounded people as we could," she said.
Allen welcomed the suggestion and encouraged others to add their voices to the discussion. "And that's what we need," she said - "to figure how to get everything else that was already out there into the conversation."
For a schedule of upcoming municipal meetings in Williamstown, visit Williamstown.ws.