WILLIAMSTOWN -- More than a year and a half after Tropical Storm Irene, the Conservation Commission and other town boards are continuing to define their roles in response to the displacement of nearly five percent of the town’s non-student population.
The town’s $6.12 million FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant will allow only a three-year window for the town to relocate the remaining residents of The Spruces Mobile Home Park - adding a further challenge for town boards struggling to coordinate with each other to develop new affordable housing in town.
At its meeting on Thursday, June 27, the Conservation Commission began collecting documents and testimony from the community, with the goal of preparing to make a decision on whether to release a portion of the Lowry property on Stratton Road from conservation. It had agreed at its previous meeting on June 13 to begin the process of creating a physical record of its decision making process that could stand up in court.
The 30-acre Lowry property has been the subject of ongoing debate since last November, when Town Manager Peter Fohlin mentioned it as a potential site for replacing some of the homes lost at the Spruces.
Philip McKnight, chairman of the Conservation Commission, who initiated the recent efforts, explained that the interests of those involved in determining the future of the property are so deeply felt that regardless of the commission’s decision, it will likely be appealed.
The commission’s goal this summer and fall, he said, "is to collect the basis for a rational and sound decision Š given the fact that we have a three-year window for this federal money and if we don’t get started now and wait until we’re properly asked, it could well be beyond the three years before the appeal is decided."
Typically, the commission makes decisions about land only after receiving a formal request to do so. In the case of transferring conservation land for the purpose of development, a request would come from the Board of Selectmen.
"So yes this is proactive," McKnight said. "We’ve not even been asked to determine whether the Lowry property should become available for another purpose. But one of our assumptions is that we eventually will be asked."
Among the documents submitted on Thursday were minutes from past meetings of the Board of Selectmen, including those of two executive sessions where the Lowry property was mentioned; Town Council Joel Bard’s letters to Peter Fohlin recommending that the Lowry property does not qualify for the protection of Article 97; and maps showing the different soil types of the property, which is considered prime farmland by the USDA.
While acknowledging the need to gather information, not all of the commissioners were enthusiastic about the new approach. Former chairman Henry Art argued that the board’s assumption that there would be litigation at the end of the process could easily reinforce existing divisions in the community.
"I’m not quite sure where this initiative is heading," he said. "It sounds like we’re heading toward a courtroom, and I think we ought to be heading toward a public hearing and discussion, and letting the town develop their own desires."
The decision to remove Lowry from conservation would require a vote not only of the commission but also at Town Meeting. If it is determined that the property is protected under Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution - something an appellate court could ultimately decide - a further vote of the State Legislature would be required before the land can be transferred.
Art has been seeking advice from the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and the Attorney General’s Office regarding the Lowry property’s conservation status. A chain of emails documenting those efforts will be submitted to the commission at a later date, along with other documents relevant to those efforts, including an alternative legal opinion provided by Cain, Hibbard and Myers P.C.
The state agencies Art has contacted have been reluctant to offer advice on a matter that is not formally pending review, he said, but he was hopeful the authorities would eventually respond and provide some direction.
Art also mentioned that the Long-Term Coordinating Committee, on which he serves, along with the chairs and former chairs of six other town boards, is itself working to help the town determine the most appropriate site or sites to begin developing replacement housing for Spruces residents.
"It may be the Lowry site, it may not be the Lowry site," he said. "But this steering committee is attempting to enter into an evaluative process in which all the alternatives are looked at. And all the alternatives haven’t even been mentioned."
Rather than preparing for a lawsuit, he said, the commission’s goal should be to arrive at a decision that is "so wonderfully incorporated and embraced by the rest of the town that everybody says, this is really what we should be doing."
Commissioner Sarah Gardner felt the board should focus only on assessing the ecological and agricultural value of the town’s conservation lands and should not attempt to assume the responsibilities of the Affordable Housing Committee and the Long-Term Coordinating Committee, which are already engaged in alternative site analysis.
"There are so many opinions and so much information floating around about affordable housing," she said. "But what about the actual value of this land to our town? That’s our job and it hasn’t really been done yet."
She pointed out that even if a determination on the Article 97 status of the Lowry property were made, if the Board of Selectmen submits a request, the commission would still need to determine whether the property is "surplus land" and vote on whether to release it from conservation.
Art suggested that the commission itself could meet with the Long-Term Coordinating Committee, which has already met with experts and consultants from various backgrounds. On Monday, July 15, the committee will meet with Mark Stinson of the Department of Environmental Protection.
In response to Art’s earlier comments, McKnight reiterated that while the LTCC’s work will be "invaluable" in providing a more complete picture, the ultimate decision at the town level will still be that of the commission - and beyond that an appellate court.
Emphasizing the urgency of the situation, he maintained the value of anticipating an appeal.
The commission will be better off having created an adequate record to begin with, he said, "So that when our decision is made, and if there is an appeal, there will be time to get it decided before the three-year grant money runs out."
"I assure you that once you get into the arms of the judicial authorities, the delay is incredible," he said.
In the event of a second appeal, he added, "we’ll be well beyond the three years. So it seems to me that we ought to proceed this summer carefully, inviting folks to come before us, give us their opinions, so that when we are officially asked to act we’ll be that much further down the road."