Jorling wants study on waterlineWILLIAMSTOWN — A former selectman and longtime environmental official said Monday that the proposed town waterline extension should not be undertaken without a formal environmental study of its consequences.
Tom Jorling, whose area of expertise is safe drinking water and water pollution control, called for “a disciplined environmental analysis” and analysis of alternatives.
While the Selectmen have yet to hear Jorling’s assertion, at Monday night’s meeting, Selectman Philip Guy dismissed waterline opponents’ fears of widespread development, noting that development requires a catalyst, such as proximity to a large employment base, which would not happen in Northern Berkshire.
Jorling, who has publicly opposed the waterline extension, said, “In all my professional experience, the results of a project of such magnitude without a disciplined environmental analysis are regrettable.”
He warned that without the sound environmental reasons for the current 21/2-acre lots required by Rural Residence 3 zoning along Cold Spring Road, that zoning could be vulnerable to a legal challenge from a developer. He also strongly criticized the non-profit designation for Northern Berkshire Health Systems’ 68-unit Sweetwood expansion.
“In my experience of over 40 years, the engine of sprawl is a dynamic one,” he said. “Once you erode the ability to limit sprawl by allowing land development, you can’t turn it off. Already, in terms of parking lots and roofs, we’ve got world class sprawl at Sweetwood and Sweet Brook.”
Jorling was instrumental in designing the Cold Spring Road sewer line which, at its smallest point is 2 1/2 inches in diameter, a limitation deliberately aimed at curbing growth along the town’s scenic southern corridor.
Failure to perform an environmental analysis, akin to an environmental impact report, could mean “shifting the burden of risk to the town,” Jorling said.
It’s a multimillion-dollar risk that hasn’t been evaluated,” he said.
Jorling headed New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation from 1987 to 1994 and was assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 1977 to 1980. He said he thought when he retired he would leave environmental battles behind but, he added, “I can’t do it when it’s my hometown.”
Jorling and some others have downplayed one stated aim of the waterline, providing enough volume in a 16-inch diameter pipe for a sprinkler system at the Mount Greylock Regional High School, when the 40-year-old building undergoes substantial renovations that are still in the early stages of planning.
“Many in town say we should not upgrade the school at that place,” Jorling said, raising one of a number of factors that underlie opposition to the waterline extension.
Some residents favor opting out of the school district, whose member towns are Williamstown and Lanesboro, and restructuring as a solely Williamstown high school, as part of a K-12 district. Another specter in the wings is a possible subdivision at Waubeeka Golf Course, although it is beyond the end of the proposed waterline, which would end at the high school
Another environmentalist who raised the possibility of moving the high school was Williams College biology professor Henry A. Art, who termed it, “an attractive thing to at least explore.”
It could, he said, mean recovering the Lowry property — originally acquired by the town as a site for the high school but now under conservation restriction.
“If there’s a 16-inch pipe out Cold Spring Road, that could drive us to making that decision” Art said.
He called the waterline “a cannon aimed at South Williamstown,” where Waubeeka golf course is often mentioned in connection with feared development. And, he observed, “Massive leisure-home development, such as is taking place in New Ashford at Brodie and Hancock at Jiminy Peak, could spill into Williamstown.”
Art also called for a thorough exploration of whether perchlorate, the contaminant found in the high school’s wells this past April, could have found its way into the groundwater to taint other surrounding wells.
At Monday’s meeting, Guy said he does not believe that the waterline would create massive development along the Route 7 corridor.
“Today, there is nothing stopping development of the open lot — which I believe there are 17 — along Route 7 from the Captain’s Table to the high school,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that getting water on these lots is probably not an issue. You can drill a well for less than $10,000 and usually come up with water. This is not a deterrent, with land and housing prices what they are today.”
Guy said while public infrastructure can foster development, water is less important than sewers and both less important than roads and electricity. He also argued that development in the area would be discouraged by rocky and steep hills, dense woodlands, wetlands, ground conditions and deed restrictions.
While infrastructure such as a waterline might aid the development process, the actual catalyst to significant development — at its worst urban sprawl — would be location near major employment, Guy said.
“You first need a catalyst, which would be a population growth spurred on by a large opportunity for employment. …As everyone knows, the opportunities for employment in the Berkshires, especially any remaining manufacturing, continue to tighten,” he said.
And, he noted, over the past 35 years, Williamstown’s population has dropped by 30 percent. Instead of sprawl, Guy said recent development here has been “ex-urbanite” — large, expensive second homes built by urbanites seeking a more secluded environment. They have proliferated along Oblong Road, Gale Road, Ide Road, Sloan Road, Stone Hill Road, Bee Hill Road, Northwest Hill Road, Stoney Ledge and Pine Cobble, he said. He argued that development would not spiral out of control because that would diminish the town’s character and so reduce the demand.
Guy argued that only the municipal solution proposed could provide the high school with safe, adequate drinking water. Filtration systems, he said, require water operators to test as often as daily to ensure that contaminants are removed.