Thank you to Peter Fohlin and the League of Women Voters for a thorough and thoughtful analysis of the proposed plan for Affordable Housing in Williamstown.
I agree that affordable housing is a moral issue and that the town has a responsibility to hear from the potential residents of the housing. Mr. Fohlin, the Affordable housing committee and the Selectman have come up with a very creative way to get a future park for the town, and begin to address the need for affordable housing. They are to be commended for their initiative and hard work!
It is also an economic issue. Having affordable housing means that businesses can hire people who are just starting out and would not be able to afford to live in town while they build experience and earn more income over their career. Our town population is shrinking, and we need to do what we can to reinvigorate the economy, and make it possible for people to stay here. Having affordable housing is one of the necessary ingredients for building a better economic environment.
I would like to see the plans for the affordable housing units include housing for people of different income levels as well. The Lowy property could include the 10 acres needed for the affordable housing units and some of the other acreage could be sold to developers or private citizens to build one level homes and/or condos for our aging population.
There are many possibilities for keeping this town vibrant, but they must include people of all income levels and ages to keep the community strong.
Those most affected
are all of us
To the editor:
It is quite interesting that our Town Manager in Williamstown, almost one year since applying for the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant, says, "Those most affected must have a voice in the outcome." The whole question of how Williamstown will address the devastation of the Spruces Mobile Home Park two years ago and the linkage to building Affordable Housing, has been void of transparency, particularly for the 66 remaining Spruces residents. If the FEMA Grant comes through, it makes us, the inhabitants of Williamstown, the landlords and ultimately the enforcing authority, serving notice to the remaining Spruces residents in very short time, about the closing of the mobile home park.
On Nov. 13, 2012, our Town Manager presented to the Selectmen a one-page memorandum announcing the town's $4.5 million grant application to FEMA, proposing to acquire The Spruces and swap it for open conservation land, thereby creating a new bucolic, community housing development located just a stones throw away on the 30-acre town-owned Lowry property. But on that same date, just hours before the announcement at the Selectmen's meeting, our Town Manager gathered the 66 remaining residents of the Spruces and informed them for the first time of this grand plan, because "those most affected must have a voice in the outcome." Equally surprised were those in attendance at the Selectmen's meeting, several members of other town committees, the residents in the community surrounding the Lowry property, and those watching the meeting from their homes.
The Selectmen, together with the Town Manager, had devised this plan under the veil of Executive Session on both March 12 and March 26, 2012, to "discuss strategy with respect to litigation (Morgan Management v. Town) and not reconvene in open session."
One wonders: Does not reconvening in open session suggest "those most affected" would be there? When the Town Manager was asked at a Selectmen's meeting by a participant in attendance, why the Spruces residents were not informed of the April 2012 FEMA grant application prior to his announcement on Nov. 13, he responded that he felt no need to inform them because he wasn't really sure that the grant would come through, and that he did not want to put them under the stress and burden of considering this application, with all they had been through.
Instead, after nine months of this supposed protection of the remaining Spruces residents from the burden of taking part in the direction each of their lives was about to take, the FEMA grant application was announced 10 days before Thanksgiving and on the cusp of the holiday season. The Spruces residents had spent months rebuilding their homes and lives, based on the direction they were given by the town so they would be allowed to return to their homes. After investing the FEMA money they had already been granted to repair their homes, they had to discover that they would have to leave the park if the grant were awarded and accepted by the town.
The Town Manager compares federal disaster relief funding to a "food chain," with the Federal government, FEMA, at the top, followed by the state level, MEMA, followed by the town and local governments, down to the property owners, like the Spruces residents, at the bottom. Certainly the last place I would think anyone would want to be is at the bottom of a food chain.
Sounds a lot like "trickle down." But among "those most affected" by Town planning and federal grants, there are more of us than just the Spruces residents. The Affordable Housing Committee and the Town Manager tell us that if the town receives the FEMA grant, after acquiring the mobile home park for $600,000 and distributing funds to its permanent residents, the $3.75 million left over will be used to create new affordable housing in town. But, we're told, this will not be enough to meet "the full cost of development." What is the full cost of development, and where do these loans and grants come from? Somewhere in the food chain? And when these funds are distributed to the Spruces residents, for example, who need them, what becomes of this money as far as FEMA is concerned? In fact, the town has no obligation under the 80-page FEMA grant to provide any housing whatsoever to The Spruces residents, only to provide them three options that may or may not currently exist. Now how did we come to this revelation? When our Town Manager was asked at a Selectmen's meeting if relocating Spruces residents to the Lowry property was a condition of approval for the FEMA grant, he said, "No." The residents are free to take their distribution and go where they wish. The caveat is, if they choose to relocate to a proposed development on the Lowry property they would have to forfeit the grant relocation moneys they would be awarded. Also, the individual funds they were previously awarded in the first round of FEMA disaster relief, used to repair and improve their homes, would be deducted from subsequent funds FEMA would give them. This food chain thing doesn't seem to be going in favor of The Spruces residents.
On the question of using conservation land to build housing developments, the circle of "those most affected" encompasses us all. The Town Manager was quick to correct the public misconception that the Lowry property is fully-protected, "legally designated" conservation land. It is, rather, voted by the Town by a greater than two-thirds majority, in 1987, to be under the conservation "jurisdiction" of the Conservation Commission. Likewise, in a two-thirds majority vote in 1987, the Burbank property, also often referenced as an affordable housing prospective site, and the Stone Hill property were given the same designation. These large Town votes clearly demonstrate "those most affected" having a voice.
Another misconception that warrants clarification is the notion that, as attributed to the League of Women Voters current president in The Advocate article, all that is necessary to allow for the development of the Lowry property "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." An opinion letter from the town's attorney, Kopelman and Paige, PC, dated Nov. 20, 2012, states that two steps must be taken: First the Conservation Commission must vote that it no longer needs the property and, second, the Town must vote by a two-thirds majority, at Town Meeting, to transfer the property from the Conservation Commission to the Board of Selectmen, at which point the Town, through its Board of Selectmen, could transfer the property to a third party without the requirement of any additional Town Meeting vote.
There is clear evidence of early, renewed, although not publicly discussed interest in the Lowry property as a site for building housing. On Oct, 31, 2012, the Affordable Housing Committee addressed a letter to the Town Conservation Commission, pre-dating the Town Manager's first public announcement of the FEMA grant application and his proposal to use the town-owned Lowry property. The letter references two parcels of town-owned land, the Lowry and Burbank properties, and states: "Because both of these properties are currently under conservation restrictions, we would like to ask that the Conservation Commission explore with us the advantages and disadvantages of lifting those restrictions from all or portions of these two properties and the process by which that might be accomplished." But "those most affected" had no chance to have a voice. There have been no agenda items or meetings scheduled by the Conservation Commission to discuss this very topic. Actually, they did discuss having a meeting on February 14, 2012, Valentines Day, in a large room so there would be more seats for all those they anticipated attending. But later they decided that there was no need to schedule such a meeting. Meanwhile, there have been many letters by residents addressed to the Conservation Commission expressing concerns over such a proposal as well as letters of support, praising their courage in continuing to support the conservation principles for which they had been placed on the Commission. Petitions with nearly three hundred signatures of concerned citizens were presented to them several months ago but there was still no dialogue. Press articles and letters have been revolving around the use of this land, but still, the silence is deafening. Perhaps the Conservation Commission took as its cue the Town Manager's statement that "Lowry is not conservation land," a misleading simplification of the actual present status of the property.
Lastly, our Town Manager draws us all in as "those most affected" when he claims, "We're suggesting that maybe we could spare 10 [acres] for our most endangered species: Human beings." He must well know that much more than the land alone is affected when its current use is changed in such a dramatic way, including and especially for those "human beings" who live in our town and around the property itself. We need more of those most affected to have their voices heard!
Robert J. Scerbo