WILLIAMSTOWN -- On April 24, the town voted to table all four of the articles on the warrants of two Special Town Meetings. The issues of land use and affordable housing, which have fueled public debate following the town's application for FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant last November, will continue to be addressed in the coming months as more information is gathered.
The idea to table the articles first came up at a joint meeting of the Board of Selectmen and the Conservation Commission on April 18. Andrew Hogeland, a member of the Finance Committee, argued that without adequate understanding of all the issues, town residents and town committees will need more time to make an informed decision.
"We're fighting about a piece of paper with 41 houses on it, we're fighting about laws none of us have read or understand," he said, referring to the conceptual site plan for the Lowry property on Stratton Road and the litany of state laws relating to land use and affordable housing that the town must navigate. "It's ridiculous. So the goal would be to take time out."
By April 23 the Board of Selectmen, the Affordable Housing Trust and the Conservation Commission all had endorsed the idea of delaying the town vote in order to pursue further information. Representatives from all three committees spoke before the town on April 24, expressing their support for the motion to table the articles.
The next steps for the town committees, said David Rempell, Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, include setting a foundation for assessing the various sites in town where affordable housing could be built, and establishing more effective channels of communication with the public.
"A number of things need to happen," he said. "One is, we need to finish the development of requests for proposals that we can send to developers to start to gather information regarding town-owned sites. We need to be considering who is going to be doing what, which committees are going to take on particular responsibilities."
Stan Parese, Chairman of the Affordable Housing Trust, mentioned that there will likely be more committee meetings than usual between now and next fall, when he expects a final town vote on the Lowry and Burbank properties (and perhaps other sites as well) to occur.
"Our typical schedule has been a once-monthly meeting and it would not at all surprise me were we to sit down with our calendars and set a meeting schedule that is more aggressive," he said.
The warrant for the Annual Town Meeting on May 21 currently includes two petition articles relating to affordable housing. As Parese explained on April 24, "the Affordable Housing Trust position will be that we stand down today, we stand down in town meeting, and we don't raise this issue until everyone is brought back to the same posture to have a vote and full discussion."
Rempell indicated on April 24 that the citizens' petition that was on the warrant for Special Town Meeting II would still be addressed in the fall. "Again, there will be lots more information available at that subsequent Town Meeting, but the citizens' petition article needs to be part of that agenda," he said. "In my mind it is the fair and correct thing to do."
One concern is that the additional six months or so required to fully investigate the issues at hand may leave even less time in which to develop new housing. The FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant that was approved in March and that the town will soon accept requires the residents of The Spruces Mobile Home Park to be relocated and the park to be decommissioned within three years of the signing of the contract.
Flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 destroyed 155 of the park's 225 homes, forcing many of the park's residents to leave town in search of alternative housing.
Town committee members have expressed reservations about whether three years will be enough time for new housing to be built, given the town's division over preferred housing locations.
"We're going to be very, very fortunate to complete any project within three years," said Van Ellet, a member of both the Conservation Commission and Affordable Housing Committee. "I don't know how it's going to be done."
As indicated by the town vote, most people agree that taking the time to organize is essential. A six-month period of investigation "shouldn't dissuade us from trying to achieve the outcome that Andy has suggested," said Selectman Tom Costley on April 18. "Let's get something done in a timely fashion, but let's do it right at the beginning. That's been the problem this spring."
Committees have indicated that they must decide how best to use their time to help voters make a well-informed decision. But as Philip McKnight, a member and former Chairman of the Conservation Commission pointed out, the public vote represents only one step in the process, at least in terms of determining future uses of the Lowry property.
The transferal of conservation land from the commission to the Board of Selectmen requires a vote of both the town and the commission. If the land in question is protected under Article 97, the state legislature also must vote, and in that case, the commission's vote must be unanimous.
In the coming months, McKnight said, the town should focus its efforts on providing not only the town residents, but also the commission with the information it needs to make an appropriate decision regarding the Lowry property.
"We need to have a very orderly determination of the facts that the commission requires," he said. "Not the Board of Selectmen, not the Affordable Housing Trust, but only the commission. Whatever we need to make a valid decision is what we should obtain."
Whether the Lowry and Burbank properties are in fact Article 97 lands remains unclear. Henry Art, Chairman of the Conservation Commission, had been seeking the advice of state authorities prior to the Special Town Meetings, but they did return his requests.
McKnight said a determination of the lands' status would likely come only after a process of judicial review, following the commission's vote. He explained that any decision of the commission is appealable to the judicial system, and that a judge's ruling may then be subject to the review of an appellate court. Regardless of the commission's final decision, he said, it could easily be appealed.
The town's ability to meet the three-year deadline would be further jeopardized, he said, "if we don't do this in a fashion that convinces folks that it's done fairly and objectively." He said the commission's goal should be to create a record of action that will sustain judicial review, regardless of how the commission votes.
One obstacle that has prevented the town from fully assessing the Lowry property has been the fact that no one will know if the land will be available for development until after the town and Conservation Commission (and possibly State Legislature) vote. But neither is likely to do so until it is convinced that the Lowry property is the best option for affordable housing.
McKnight believes the commission should nevertheless uphold its highest standards in making a decision. "It's a chicken-and-an-egg problem, I quite understand," he said. "And with a developer, he may not be interested in formulating the costs of building on the Lowry property until he knows the land is in fact available. I think the commission is going to say, we're not going to make it available until we know that is the last, best location."
The FEMA grant may help address that problem. Rempell hopes the town's requests for proposals will provide information about the development potential of the different sites that has so far been lacking. But beginning that process will depend on first accepting the FEMA grant, so the clock will start ticking.
"In some ways the work is just beginning now," Rempell said. "We've received the grant, which gives us the resources to be able to send out RFPs. That leads to the assessment of these RFPs, and the subsequent meetings of the town to determine where we go."
Another issue to consider, he said, is the future uses of the Spruces property, which the town will likely acquire as result of the FEMA grant. A new committee to look at the property will include representatives from various other town committees and four members of the public. Dick Schlesinger will represent the Conservation Commission and Rempell the Board of Selectmen.