WILLIAMSTOWN -- Town Manager Peter Fohlin took the podium at this year’s Susan B. Anthony Dinner at the Williams Inn to share his personal views regarding the town’s affordable housing efforts.
During the dinner, hosted by the League of Women Voters, Fohlin emphasized the importance of continuing to address the needs of the current and former residents of the Spruces Mobile Home Park, a year-and-a-half after Hurricane Irene left most of the park uninhabitable, and explained his support for developing land on the Lowry property on Stratton Road, an idea that has sparked ongoing local debate.
While laying out some of the details surrounding the issues of funding and location, Fohlin presented the town’s affordable housing problem as a moral imperative. We should treat our low-income and elderly neighbors no differently than we would anyone else in the community if they were facing similar needs, he said.
"We want to do this with the people who will be living in our affordable housing. We don’t want to do this to them," he said. "They need to be participants, they need to have a voice in the outcome."
Anne Skinner, a former Williamstown selectwoman and the current League president, said Fohlin’s leadership in helping Spruces residents recover and relocate after Irene, and his ongoing efforts to address the town’s need for affordable housing reflect the League’s own support of affordable housing as meeting a basic human need.
The League also supports open space, she said. But in the case of the Lowry property, which consists of open space and farmland, the League’s position, based largely on research it conducted in 2008 and earlier, is that "the need for affordable housing trumps the need for open space," Skinner said.
Fohlin said the affordable housing debate can be broken down into two categories: money and location.
"We have an absolutely unique and extraordinary opportunity for affordable housing funding," he said, referring to the FEMA Hazard Mitigation grant for which the town applied in 2012, and which would allow the town to acquire The Spruces, help its current residents relocate and begin development of affordable housing elsewhere in town.
The amount FEMA will provide for the purchase, he said, is determined by the pre-storm value of the park, which is $6 million.
"That means that FEMA would step up to the tune of $4.5 million for a park that is now worth one-and-a-quarter," he said. "So if you can get someone to give you $4.5 million for an asset that’s only worth a million and a quarter, that’s a deal."
He illustrated federal disaster relief funding as being a food chain, with aid flowing from FEMA at the top, through MEMA (Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency) and local governments in the middle, down to the property owner at the bottom. But in the case of The Spruces, he said, the property owner is Morgan Management, not the town.
"So the question was, how do we get that money from Morgan Management? The obvious answer is, you buy the park," he said. When Fohlin offered to buy the park flat-out, Morgan Management offered the price of $600,000, which Fohlin accepted.
If the town receives the grant, the $3.75 million left over after acquiring the park and distributing funds to its permanent residents will be used for the creation of new affordable housing in town, Fohlin said, although a combination of loans and grants will be required to meet the full cost of development.
Under the proposed arrangement, Morgan Management would receive $600,000 of the FEMA grant and then donate the park to the town.
"I’m reluctant to say this because I don’t like to claim too much glory," Fohlin said, "but FEMA and MEMA have never done this before. This is a totally new idea to everybody, including the Massachusetts attorney general, who initially could not believe that we wanted to own a trailer park."
He added that Attorney General Martha Coakley and others at the state level had been receptive to the town’s proposal. "They’re there now, and we have it in writing that they’ve caught on to how this will work."
In addressing the issue of location, Fohlin took advantage of the opportunity to correct the public misconception that the Lowry property is fully-protected conservationland. That misconception has been at the center of local debates over whether to develop the property.
"First of all, Lowry property is not conservation land," Fohlin said. "And I know that will both confuse and anger some people."
The town originally acquired the property in the 1950s for the purpose of building a local high school, he said. After plans for the local high school were abandoned in favor of a regional high school, the property was placed in the care of the conservation commission, but not legally designated as conservation land.
If the land were in conservation, Fohlin said, removing it would be nearly impossible, requiring votes of the Conservation Commission, the town, and the Massachusetts state legislature.
All that is necessary to allow for the development of the property, said Skinner, "is for the conservation commission to consent in either taking the entire property - or more likely taking 10 acres of the property - and turning it back to the town for construction." Skinner said she was herself unaware until recently of the details of the property’s status.
Development at the Lowry property is not a new idea, Fohlin said. "It’s at least a 10-year-old idea that comes out of the 2002 master plan." That plan called for 75 units on the property, whereas the most current site evaluation, conducted by Guntlow and Associates, calls for 41 units.
Skinner said the property was placed into the care of the Conservation Commission in the 1990s partly to protect it from proposals (even then) for housing development. She recalls a member of the affordable housing committee at the time discouraging the transfer, since the town already needed affordable housing.
Fohlin made clear that the conceptual site plan for 41 units at the Lowry property "leaves all of the standing vegetation [trees] in place, is only 10 out of 30 acres - leaving 20 acres still available for farming or recreation or anything else that ConCom manages."
Acquiring The Spruces would provide the town legal ownership of 114 acres that could be used for a combination of recreation and athletic space and possibly a bike trail between the former site of the Photech Mill on Cole Avenue (another potential development site) and North Adams.
"It’s a great swap for the 10 acres that are better suited for human beings and not so well suited for other purposes," Fohlin said.
He also mentioned that in the last 10 years, private property owners have placed more than 300 acres in Williamstown into legally protected status, where development can never occur. "We’re suggesting that maybe we could spare 10 for our most endangered species: Human beings," he said.
Skinner hopes that Fohlin’s appearance at the dinner marks the beginning of a more public phase in his efforts to advance the town’s affordable housing efforts. She also expects the League to become more active itself, through letters to the editor in local newspapers and statements before town boards.