WILLIAMSTOWN -- On Monday, Aug. 12, the Board of Selectmen withdrew its request of the Conservation Commission to release portions of the Lowry and Burbank properties on Stratton Road for the purpose of developing affordable housing. It cited the need to focus on less controversial options and to make better use of the limited timeframe provided by the town's FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant.
The board also agreed unanimously to begin exploring the possibility of collaborating on the affordable housing project currently underway next to Proprietors Fields on land donated by Williams College. On Thursday, Aug. 22, members of the Spruces Roof Group (an affordable housing steering committee) will discuss the idea with Aaron Gornstein of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, a likely source of funding for the project.
The town's efforts over the last two years to identify a suitable site for replacing some of the 155 homes lost at The Spruces Mobile Home Park during Tropical Storm Irene has renewed a longstanding debate over land use and affordable housing. With the selectmen's withdrawal of its request, several questions remain in regard to the status of the town's conservation properties, which came into question last November when Town Council Joel Bard recommended that the Lowry property was not protected by Article 97 of the State Constitution.
Charles Bonenti of the Affordable Housing Committee was among several residents and committee members last week who hoped that the questions surrounding the Lowry property could still be answered. The Conservation Commission had stated earlier that it would not address the issue without a formal request to do so.
"If there was some way to encourage the Conservation Commission to get clarity on this issue of where we stand - whether it's protected in a certain way - so we don't keep coming up against this over and over again, it would serve us all well," Bonenti said.
Selectmen Thomas Sheldon, who voted against the withdrawl, was reluctant "to leave for the next generation the same set of issues and potential controversies" that the town has grappled with in the past.
In responding to the selectmen's request, the commission had hoped to reach a more reliable determination as to whether the properties had the protection of Article 97. The transfer of Article 97 lands for a non-conservation purpose requires votes of the commission, the town and the State Legislature.
Commissioner Henry Art had made progress in communicating with the Attorney General's office and it seemed increasingly likely that the Lowry and Burbank properties did qualify for Article 97 protection. A conversation Art had with Assistant Attorney General Andrew Goldberg in July indicated that the lands' official status would depend at least partly on how they have been managed since being placed into conservation.
Conservation Agent Andrew Groff, along with Art, compiled an extensive record of town meeting, deed and management transactions regarding the Lowry, Burbank and Stone Hill properties (all of which were voted into conservation in 1987). Art submitted the records to the Attorney General's office in August but has not received a response.
Art wrote in an email that a conference call he had hoped to arrange, which would include himself, Goldberg, a member of the Board of Selectmen and Town Council Joel Bard, was no longer likely to happen, given the state's preference for dealing only with matters that are currently pending review.
But the Article 97 question (which also applies to several of the commission's other properties) still persists, he wrote, and he hopes his discussion with the Attorney General's office will continue.
"The answer to the question is important to the Town because there has been a long history (dating back to 1989) of the Board of Selectmen and the Affordable Housing Committee more or less ignoring the May, 1987 Town Meeting vote and positing the Lowry Lot, in particular, as a suitable site for affordable housing development," he wrote.
"The Town deserves better clarity about the situation than they have enjoyed over the past 24 years. Therefore, I intend to continue my discussions with Mr. Goldberg as long as he is willing to do so."
Chairman Philip McKnight said the commission will attempt to clarify the status of all of its nine properties. Several of the properties where development has occurred - including Margaret Lindley Park and the parking area at Five Corners - are not protected by Article 97, he said. The commission's discussion will likely focus on the properties that remain undeveloped.
The public hearings regarding the Lowry and Burbank properties that began in June in anticipation of the request will not continue, McKnight said, but the more than 50 documents collected from the community between June 26 and Aug. 8 will remain available on the commission's website. McKnight does not expect to receive responses to the 13 questions the commission submitted to the selectmen and to the Affordable Housing Committee Aug. 9 regarding the request.
McKnight emphasized that even though the commission and the Attorney General may come to their own conclusions about the status of the properties, a final determination could only be made by an appellate court - a long process that could not even begin without the commission first responding to a request. But he believes the Attorney General still has a responsibility to make a determination.
"It's something the AG ought to do because we're not the only community that has raised this kind of an issue," he said. "We should get some guidelines from the AG's office that are more emphatic or more definite than what's available in certain policy directives from other state agencies. Policy is never law."
He mentioned that the town's current master plan from 2002, which specifies the 30-acre Lowry property as a potential site for infill housing and recreational facilities, could end up rekindling the Lowry debate in the near future.
"I suspect that when the new master plan is drafted, there will be a concerted effort to remove that idea," he said, "so that no conservation land would ever be considered for any other use except conservation. But that remains in the future."
Despite the controversy, McKnight said the commission had not been overly burdened by the deliberations, and that it was up to date on all of its regular business. He said the debate over Lowry had been a valuable opportunity for the commission to better understand the community's views on conservation land.
"We have to keep in mind that something has to be done for those folks down at The Spruces, because they are going to have to [leave] that property," he said. "But at the moment, conservation land is not an alternative, is not the solution."