WILLIAMSTOWN - Earlier this month, the 2012 conceptual site plan for affordable housing development at the Lowry property on Stratton Road was posted to the town website, providing a public update to the town's efforts to provide additional housing for low-income, disabled and elderly residents.
The plan was designed by Guntlow and Associates Inc. and calls for 41 single-unit homes on 10 acres of open land that is being used for recreation and hay production. How the loss of those 10 acres will affect the community and local agriculture is a question that underlies many people's opposition to the proposal.
Despite being in the care of the Conservation Commission since 1987, the 30-acre property has become the focus of the town's affordable housing development efforts, which multiplied after Tropical Storm Irene left most of the residents of The Spruces Mobile Home Park in search of alternative housing in 2011.
Most of the 19 acres of open space at Lowry is considered prime farmland by the USDA. Since the early 1980s, Kim Wells, owner of East Mountain Farm on Henderson Road, has cultivated the land for growing hay, much of which he sells to nearby Clover Hill Farm on Adams Road for horse feed.
While the loss of 10 acres of farmland out of about 4,000 total farmland acres in Williamstown may seem inconsequential, for Wells, who uses the hay to feed his cattle, and for Clover Hill Farm, the loss would be significant.
Many residents believe that giving up the town-owned property would represent a step in the wrong direction for the future of Williamstown, where an interest in locally produced food is growing. It would also be one less hayfield in an area where just about every available site for growing hay is already in production.
Pete Phelps, one of the owners of Sweet Brook Farm on Oblong Road. and his cousin Jeff Young, spend most of their summers harvesting around 500 acres of hay at various sites around Williamstown. Young sells the hay to local farms and other businesses.
"Most of the land that's available is being used, as far as I can tell," Phelps said. "The land up on Mount Hope is all being used for grazing and for haying, and the Galushas [Fairfield Farm on Blair Road] have a big dairy farm; they crop all the land they can get their hands on."
He added that New England has been experiencing an excess capacity for hay, as dairy farms continue to go out of business and pastureland is gradually converted to hayfields. But in Williamstown, the availability of locally produced, high-quality hay is a major asset for local farmers.
In addition to providing hay for local farms to feed their animals and use as mulch, hayfields also provide habitat for birds, deer and other animals, and open spaces for recreation, Phelps said. Many people in Williamstown utilize the Lowry and Burbank properties for year-round outdoor activities.
Richie Haley, who raises replacement heifers for milk farms, uses a portion of his farmland in the Hopper for producing hay to feed to his cows and to sell to other local farmers.
"The state owns [the farm]," he said. "We lease it from the state because my uncle sold it back in the '90s - and we're fortunate to have that, but if we ever had to run around Williamstown to get hay, I wouldn't do it."
Many local farmers rely on alternate sources of income, Haley said, and every opportunity to increase efficiency and lower costs makes a difference.
A cumulative effect
The number of farms in Berkshire County (522 as of 2007) has been relatively stable in the last few years, said Tad Ames, president of Berkshire Natural Resources Council, but experienced a decline in the 1990s and early 2000s, due largely to the effect of landowners selling sections of farmland for private homes.
The remaining land can usually still be farmed, he said. "But once there's a house sort of in a corner of a field, suddenly there's a little less land to work with, it's a little more complicated in terms of getting big machinery to make turns and stuff like that, and suddenly, the farmer has - where they had a clean, empty field - may now have a neighbor who says, 'Well I don't want you here at six in the morning.'"
"A lot of farmland has gotten nickel-and-dimed away in these small transactions that don't seem really bad if you were looking at it statistically, but the ability to farm gets harder and harder."
More and more frequently, said Haley, restaurants, colleges and community members are looking for fresh, locally produced meat and produce. "They're looking for that. And once you use that land you can never take it back. Twenty years from now and you need that fresh food, where are you going to produce it?"
Haley's grandfather owned land off of Cole Avenue that had been used as a community garden until it was developed for affordable housing in the 1940s and '50s. What began as a few houses, he said, eventually grew into a residential neighborhood where real estate costs are now well above the affordability threshold for low-income residents.
Competition for farmland in the Berkshires is already quite fierce, said Ames, and as food becomes more expensive to ship around and we face the many challenges associated with climate change and overpopulation, communities will want to produce more of their own food.
"I think that communities that have good farmlands still in production would be wise to keep it that way," he said. "It's sort of the best guarantee that we can at least partially feed ourselves in the future. It may sound apocalyptic, but I don't think that it really is. For New England to be able to produce a substantial share of its food, I think it's going to become a more and more vital imperative as we go forward."
A common inheritance
In 2012 the town applied for a FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant that will allow it to acquire The Spruces property and allocate $3.75 million for new development. The Spruces would then become available as open space and for recreation, but according to Haley and others who are familiar with farming, the land would be nearly impossible to bring back into agriculture.
"A lot of the land is run-down," Haley said. "To get that to farmland takes a lot of years. You can't take The Spruces and turn that into farmland. That soil is ruined. You can put a park down there, but to grow hay and crops, forget it."
In addition to the Lowry property, the town has also been studying the former site of the Photech Mill on Cole Avenue and the former site of the Town Garage on Water Street, where environmental cleanups are under way. The Burbank property on Stratton Road and a property owned by Williams College near Proprietor's Field are also being discussed.
Most of the focus has been on the Lowry property, since it would allow for the development of single-unit homes and a neighborhood atmosphere similar to what has existed at The Spruces. The Lowry property had been considered for affordable housing development in 2002 and earlier. It was placed into the care of the Conservation Commission by town vote in 1987.
Many who support the Lowry proposal see it as a first step in addressing the town's decades-long affordable housing shortage. Even if all five potential sites were developed, that would not meet the goals laid out in the town's 2002 Master Plan of having affordable housing account for 10 percent of all housing in the town.
"There are a lot of important and pressing public needs," Ames acknowledged, "and sometimes a choice piece of open space or open farmland looks like just the place we need to do this that or the other thing, but these conservation lands, whether they're farms or forests, or watershed, wildlife habitat, recreational land, they're part of our inheritance, and part of the inheritance that we want to pass along to future residents of the town. So I think we should be very careful about spending away our endowment."