Williamstown Board Raises Concern Over Land Conservation

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Town Manager Peter Fohlin explains which plastic are recyclable in town.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town has long been a champion of preserving open space, but the appearance of four conservation restriction items on Monday's agenda had the Selectmen wondering if they've gone too far.

The four items combined would take more than 300 acres of out potential development — and essentially off the tax rolls.

It was that loss of town income that gave the board pause.

"That's the first time ever I can remember [this many] happened at once ... it brought the whole issue up to me," said board Chairwoman Jane Allen, who was concerned the town was limiting development to its center. "This is revenue that comes into the town."

Selectman Thomas Costley said land use was a discussion that needed to be had within the town, such as with the Planning Board and Conservation Commission. "But we can't be making people feel bad about preserving their private property."

The board eventually approved Pam Weatherbee's request to place another 13 acres of her land on Sweet Brook Road into a conservation restriction, bringing the total amount of land to nearly 56 acres. The restriction, which will prevent development, will be held by Berkshire Natural Resources Council.

Also approved was the preservation of 1.75 acres on Green River Road owned by John and Jytte Brooks; the restriction will be held by the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation. The foundation will also hold the restriction on 37.60 acres of land on Northwest Hill Road owned by Joseph and Teresa Finnegan. That parcel had been approved for conservation last year but the state had rejected it because of building conditions the owners had placed on an adjacent parcel; that parcel was removed from consideration to simplify the procedure.

The fourth preservation item was letter from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation informing the town that it was interested in acquiring 214 acres on Blair Road. It is considering purchasing 65 acres outright and placing a conservation restriction on the remaining 149 acres.

Weatherbee said preserving land makes the town more attractive and that it would not significantly affect taxes. In fact, she said, it would make abutting properties more valuable. "I think the public will benefit from this restriction." 

Even so, said Allen, land was being taken off the rolls, pointing to the Brooks property, which is assessed as a building lot.

According to information she received from the town's principal assessor, William J. Barkin, the plot was currently assessed at $159,000 and bringing in taxes of $1,812; once in conservation, the value would drop to $8,000 and taxes of $91.

"It's information that we should have," she said.

Leslie Reed-Evans, director of the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation, said there are good reasons for selecting land for preservation, such as its topography, location, abutting properties and habitat. The Brooks' plot is a steep slope in the Green River watershed near agricultural land that is being eyed for preservation and in a transitional area into the the town's center, she said.

"I know it's difficult because we don't have a lot of buildable land in Williamstown but there's also not a lot of conservation land in Massachusetts," said Reed-Evans. "In some places, there's none so we're lucky we can do these preservation projects and it is for our environmental health."

Selectman David Rempell wondered whether the commercial Five Corners section would have been considered for conservation. "Wouldn't that be the natural extension?" he asked, if the Lands Foundation was working to preserve the Green River.

Reed-Evans said foundation was going to "march down Green River Road" and that not all land along the river required extensive conservation. The foundation had, in fact, rejected some parcels because they didn't meet the criteria, she said.

Rempell said he was glad to hear that but asked what would happen if the board failed to approve the three restrictions presented to it.

The conservation restriction could not be recorded but the owners could turn around and donate it outright to the nonprofit organizations, said Narain Schroeder of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council. It usually then comes off the tax rolls, he continued, unless it generates through agricultural leasing or other uses. The conservation restrictions leave the land in private hands while the nonprofits ensure it the restrictions are properly followed.

"The land has to have some certain ecological or agricultural value," said attorney Elisabeth Goodman, who was representing the Finnegans. "This is special and unique land that's being preserved. ... It's not just any old land that we're taking out of the marketable arena ... it's land that the owner and Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation and the state say is worth preserving. You should keep that in mind."

In other business:
  • The board also approved a number of vendor, victualler and alcohol licenses for the coming year and allowed pouring establishments in town to close early on Christmas Eve if they so wish.
  • Approved a water and sewer warrant for $209,727.26.
  • Town Manager Peter Fohlin reminded residents that the town can only recycle hard plastic bottles that have a neck; soft plastics, such as tubs and microwave dishes, will no longer be accepted.
  • The board declared Dec. 16 and 17 as Annie Eugenie Clermont Mullen Days, in honor of the Williamstown native who will celebrate her 100th birthday on Dec. 17 (or 16, as that's the date on which her mother says she was born). Now residing in Utica, N.Y., Mullen was born on Mill Street and remembers playing along the Green River. She had eight children, 27 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren.

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