WILLIAMSTOWN -- Three articles submitted by citizen’s petition, both dealing with affordable housing, have been added to the warrant for the Annual Town Meeting scheduled for May 21. The articles promise to carry the debate over a location for new affordable housing well into the spring.
One of the articles allows for a revisiting of Article 2 currently on the warrant for the Special Town Meeting on April 24. Using the same wording, it calls for 10 acres of the Lowry property on Stratton Road to be transferred to the Board of Selectmen for the purpose of affordable housing, and for the remaining 20 acres to be protected through a conservation restriction.
Another article associated with the petition allows for the town to change the voting requirement from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority vote.
That provision (allowed by state law for land being transferred out of conservation for the purpose of affordable housing) was presented as a separate article on the draft warrant for the April 24 meeting as well, but failed to receive majority support from the Board of Selectmen. Chairman David Rempell was absent from that meeting, and his vote could have changed the outcome.
Neither of the petition articles on the May 21 warrant collected as many signatures as the petition initiated by Sarah Thurston in March, calling for the Special Town Meeting and for the Lowry and Burbank properties to be placed into permanent conservation.
In an email message, Jane Nicholls, who initiated the Lowry petition for the Annual Town Meeting, said she had not tried to get more than the required number of signatures. Those who signed, she said, did not necessarily support the article, but wanted it to be added to the warrant for the sake of continued discussion.
Nicholls further explained that her motivations in creating the article were "to ensure that as broad a base of the community as possible has a chance to discuss and to learn about the proposal" that is currently on the Special Town Meeting warrant, and also "to give the public more time to understand the issue."
"In my experience, the attendance at single-issue Special Town Meetings is often sparser that it is for the Annual Town Meeting, and, regardless of the numbers, fewer undecided and open-minded citizens attend," she wrote. "The hastily called Special Town Meeting this month appears to me to be an attempt by some citizens to preempt and to cut off any further discussion of development of the Lowry Property - not just for affordable housing, but for all purposes except conservation."
The deadline to register to vote at the April 24 Special Town Meeting is Friday, April 12 at 8 p.m., (The deadline to register to vote at the Annual Town Meeting was April 10.)
The other petition on the May 21 warrant was created by former selectman Ken Swiatek, and calls for $365,000 of community funds to be allocated to the group Save the Spruces for the purpose of acquiring The Spruces Mobile Home Park and running it as a cooperative. That had been the original goal of Save the Spruces, but their efforts to independently raise the $600,000 needed to purchase the park had been unsuccessful. Swiatek argues that keeping The Spruces in operation would be a less costly and less controversial solution to the town’s affordable housing shortage, which was compounded when flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 destroyed two thirds of the homes in the park. Most of the park lies in a 100-year floodplain.
The town’s acquisition and decommissioning of the park would be required by FEMA as part of the Hazard Mitigation Grant that was approved in March, but residents have the right of first refusal to buy the park for a period of 45 days following the park’s closure. As of early April, the town had not yet signed a grant contract with Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, which manages the grant money, and the park remains open.
In January the Board of Selectmen, on behalf of Save the Spruces, had requested that the Army Corps of Engineers investigate sources of flooding at the park and determine the possibility of mitigating those sources. Thomas J. Hodson of the Corps of Engineers, New York district, responded on March 29, saying that the request presented a "single-owner problem," since The Spruces is owned by Morgan Management LLC.
"The Corps will not recommend adoption of a Federal project, or include as a separate element in a recommended structural project plan, flood control improvements which would solely benefit the private property of a single owner," he wrote.
Transferring ownership of The Spruces to a cooperative could potentially offer a way around that problem, but there is no guarantee that a flood control project at the park would be feasible.
Save The Spruces was formed by Spruces residents after the town announced in 2012 that it had applied for the Hazard Mitigation Grant. For most of its existence, the group has only had about 12 members, but Swiatek believes more people will join in the coming weeks.
Swiatek is the author of the original Town Meeting article that placed the Lowry and Burbank properties on Stratton Road into the care of the Conservation Commission in 1987. He has been an outspoken critic of the town’s plans to remove a portion of the Lowry property from conservation for the purpose of developing affordable housing.