WILLIAMSTOWN - The Conservation Commission's public hearing last Wednesday at the Harper Center gave voice to a broad range of concerns regarding the town's use of open space. Collecting public opinion is the first stage in the Commission's efforts to revise it's long-outdated Open Space and Recreation Plan.
The state recommends that towns update their Open Space and Recreation Plans every five years. Williamstown's most recent plan was approved in 1995, making it 13 years out of date. Towns with active plans are eligible for state funds such as the Parkland Acquisition and Renovation for Communities Grant Program and the Local Acquisitions for Natural Diversity Program.
Commissioner Henry Art explained that an active plan also helps guide the community and its town boards in managing the town's open space.
"It's an opportunity for the townspeople to voice their desires and needs and make suggestions to the town as to how open space and recreation are provided in the community," he said.
Residents at the meeting inquired about such things as access to the Hoosic River, ongoing plans for a bike path connecting Williamstown and North Adams, and maintaining the town's network of hiking trails.
Lauren Gaherty, senior planner at Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said last Friday that about half the communities in the Berkshires have drafted Open Space and Recreation Plans, although
Williamstown drafted a revised plan in 2003 with the help of the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation and Jocelyn Gardner, then a student at Williams. It was revised in 2005, approved by the Board of Selectmen and forwarded to the Conservation Commission, but for reasons that remain unclear, the Commission never voted to adopt the plan.
Students in this year's Environmental Planning Workshop at Williams College are working with the Commission to gather public opinion that will help shape the future plan. The annual workshops are led by Sarah Gardner, associate director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams and a member of the Conservation Commission.
Other students in the class are working with the Spruces Land Use Committee to recommend future uses of The Spruces Mobile Home Park, which was devastated by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and will likely be acquired and decommissioned by the town in 2016 as part of the town's FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant. Both student groups were present at the Oct. 23 meeting.
The two groups sent out a joint survey to 460 randomly selected households (20 percent of the total households in town). As of Oct. 25, about 100 surveys had been returned. "I wouldn't be surprised if we get 200 back," Gardner said.
"We also are holding these public meetings because we want everyone to have an opportunity to participate, even if they weren't in the 20 percent that received a survey in the mail," she said. The meetings also allow a wider segment of the population to be heard, she said, since it is usually only the head of a household that responds to mail-in surveys.
On Friday, Oct. 25, the student team looking at The Spruces visited students at Mount Greylock Regional High School to gather input on future uses of the park (all but two of the 20 high school students were Williamstown residents).
"We definitely learned a lot about what kids wanted," said Katharine Newcomer, a student in the Environmental Planning Workshop. "They definitely voiced that they wanted a gathering space outside of the college land. Some of them said they wanted basketball, some said that they wanted ice skating."
The group will return to Mount Greylock on Friday, Nov. 1, to meet with middle school students. The group that is looking at the Open Space and Recreation Plan will likely meet with senior citizens in November.
Gardner said there may be additional Conservation Commission hearings for the general public, but emphasized that anyone is welcome to bring their ideas to the Commission during its regular meetings as posted on the town website.
"We always want to hear from people," she said. "Right now we want to hear from everyone about their ideas about open space and conservation and recreation and anyone can send a letter or request one of our surveys if they didn't get one in the mail." She especially welcomed creative ideas that are inexpensive to implement.
Long in the making
At the Oct. 23 meeting, Kenneth Swiatek of Stratton Road proposed closing down Water Street to traffic on Sunday afternoons, an idea that Gardner found intriguing.
"It's a beautiful street," Swiatek said. "The only problem is, cars go on it. It's along the river, it's a nice place, but as you probably know, if you walk or bike on that road, you take your life in your own hands and so as a result you normally don't enjoy it quite as much as you would."
He noted that Memorial Drive (owned by the State Department of Conservation and Recreation) in Cambridge closes to traffic on Sundays in the summer and fall.
Gardner agreed that residents have very few options for safe bike travel in town. She also believed that providing maps of existing bike routes would be problematic.
"It makes me nervous to have [bike routes] on a map or to tell people where it's safe to go because there may be one safe road, but then you've got to come back on something dangerous," she said. "There is no safe place and it's especially bad for kids."
The Spruces Land Use Committee's discussions have included the possibility of a bike path encircling the Spruces property, and also a longer bike path connecting Williamstown and North Adams, an idea long in the making.
Working with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission in 2010, Williamstown and North Adams received a $701,000 grant from the National Scenic Byways Program to design a bike path along the Mohawk Trail. (The grant is administered by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.) Gaherty said the terrain in North Adams is more complex, so that section of the route still needs to be finalized.
"Williamstown's terrain is a little easier," she said. "We think we have a route, but the Spruces property is the link between Williamstown and North Adams." She said town officials and the Hoosic River Watershed Association envision the path winding along the Hoosic River. She said interest in the bike path remains high, but that construction projects are often slow to get started.
She also pointed out that North Adams recently finished its own Open Space and Recreation Plan (with help from Gardner's students in 2012). She encouraged Williamstown to consider the needs of North Adams and also Pownal, "because there are always opportunities for working with your next-door neighbor to create a longer trail, or a longer greenway or a larger open space."
"Sometimes we have to remind our communities - you know, look to your borders," she said. "See what your neighbors say in their open space plan and maybe you get a larger perspective. And something like a bike trail would be one of those things."
"We've talked for 25 years of having a bicycle path come from North Adams to Williamstown," Art said at the Oct. 23 meeting. "But a lot of these things take, apparently, forever to get accomplished. That doesn't mean we should stop trying."