The town is hoping a federal grant will allow it to build new and better housing for Spruces residents away from the flood-prone park.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town is applying for federal funds that will allow it to acquire the storm-damaged Spruces Mobile Home Park and demolish it in favor of developing affordable housing in a more stable location.
Town Manager Peter Fohlin explained the proposal on Tuesday — first at a meeting for current Spruces residents and then before the Selectmen.
The town is seeking a grant of about $6.25 million from Federal Emergency Management Agency funds designated to help Massachusetts rebuild after last year's Tropical Storm Irene.
Morgan Management, the owner of the 114-acre mobile home park on Main Street (Route 2), has agreed to accept $600,000 from the grant in exchange for the title to the land, where it currently rents mobile home sites to 66 occupants.
More than 150 homes were destroyed in the August 2011 storm. The property, which had a pre-Irene value of $6.4 million, was valued at $1.2 million prior to last month's "Superstorm" Sandy, Fohlin said.
Morgan Management, operating as Spruces MHC LLC, bought the property from Bay Colony in 2002 for about $2.3 million. (Two weeks ago, it was reported that Morgan had an offer to sell Wheel Estates in North Adams; the company also owns mobile home parks in North Adams and Cheshire.)
Nearly half of the grant money the town seeks from the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program will go toward construction of permanent replacement housing, which Fohlin proposes the town build on 30 acres of town-owned land off Stratton Road known as the "Lowry property."
The chairman of the Affordable Housing Committee was one of several residents at Tuesday evening's meeting who lined up to applaud the proposal.
"It's not the end, it's not even the beginning, but it's an important oportunity for the town," Catherine Yamamoto said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for the town to address this need and rise to the occasion to help our friends, relatives and neighbors."
Fohlin said he was reluctant to characterize the reaction of Spruces residents who attended the private meeting Tuesday afternoon. But he sounded encouraged by the feedback he received.
"It was a very attentive audience and a very engaged audience," he said. "There was only one Spruces resident who lost his cool ... and he came up to me afterward and apologized. We didn't face any [other] open hostility or anger.
Williamstown Conservation Commission Chairman Hank Art comments on the plan as Peter Fohlin, right, looks on.
"[The proposal] was well received with a fair amount of apprehension because they're the ones who are in play. All around, it was a positive experience."
Fohlin not only understood the reaction of the resident he mentioned, he expected emotions to run high.
"This is a long, complicated and emotional process," Fohlin said. "It's OK with me if you lose [your cool] again."
According to a memo Fohlin circulated at Tuesday evening's meeting, the $6,248,475 grant application will be allocated as follows:
► About $3 million for construction of affordable housing.
► Up to $1.485 million in relocation costs for the 66 current owner-occupants of the park.
►About $1.2 million for demolition and cleanup of the park, including an apartment building and the recreation hall.
► $600,000 to Rochester, N.Y.,-based Morgan Management.
The land the mobile home park now occupies would be used for agriculture, recreation and conservation, under Fohlin's plan.
The Lowry property is currently under the control of the town's Conservation Commission, and Fohlin has asked the town counsel to determine what steps would be needed to take the land out of conservation.
Fohlin noted that the process of pulling the land out of conservation — which could involve an act of the Legislature among other steps - makes it unlikely the town will be terminating the permit any time soon.
"I cannot imagine [Wells] wouldn't be haying it next summer," Fohlin said. "I imagine he'll be given plenty of notice."
Fohlin said the grant request currently is in the hands of FEMA officials in Massachusetts. The town is waiting for the local FEMA office to pass the application along to Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, he will be meeting after Thanksgiving with the attorney general's Office, which looks out for the interest of mobile home park residents.
The proposal already has been discussed extensively with officials from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, FEMA and the AG's office, Fohlin said.
"I've met with two assistant attorneys general in Boston," Fohlin said. "I told them, 'I know you can't give me a green light, but I'm asking you for a yellow light. If you're going to give me a red light, I'll drop it now.' They essentially gave me a yellow light."
Fohlin said it is too early in the planning stages to commit to a specific number of structures or a specific design. He did throw out the possibility of building homes designed by a Wilder, Vt., non-profit in response to Irene and recommended the audience visit www.uvstrong.org to learn about its "Irene Cottages."
"I hope we'll have enough [units] for everyone who currently lives [at the Spruces], everyone who used to live there and everyone who wants affordable housing in Williamstown," he said.
Selectman Tom Costley commended Fohlin for his months of work on the plan unveiled on Tuesday.
"It calls on everything in your arsenal: brains, patience, tact and imagination," Costley said. "It'll be harder going forward, but I'm glad you're here to do it."
Chairman David Rempell joined Costley in praising Fohlin's efforts.
"There's going to be a lot of other discussion that has to take place in our community," Rempell said. "But we have a direction and an approach that could be extremely meaningful for 66 households presently and many, many others in the future."
In other business on Tuesday, the board appointed Leigh Short to the Affordable Housing Committee.
Short, who currently serves on the Zoning Board of Appeals, is a chemical engineer who hopes to lend his expertise to the Affordable Housing Committee as it moves forward on potentially developing two much smaller town-owned properties: the former town garage site and the site of the former PhoTech mill. Both those properties have ground contamination issues.
The board also set a permit fee of $10 for a special license to sell wine produced by farmer wineries at farmers markets and issued the first such permit to Greenfield's Green River Ambrosia to sell at the Berkshire Grown Holiday Farmers Markets, Nov. 18 and Dec. 16.
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Mr. Barbeau - why would you expect Williamstown to reimburse you for costs associated with the removal of your ruined property? Morgan Management required the removal and clean-up of your lot - why do you expect Williamstown to reimburse you? Don't you think the Town has taken on more than its share of responsibility for MM's mismanagement?
Did you receive FEMA funding?
IF this further FEMA grant funding is secured, FEMA requires Williamstown to take clean-up costs right off the top. Hardly seems fair for you to have your hand out for a piece of that...
I attended this meeting and it was hardly well received. Mr. Fohlin began the meeting by reading the Harzard Mitigation Grant application which signaled the residents there is more bad news. What storm Irene started the town officials of Williamstown intends to finish, if you let them. These same officals were the ones that encouraged the Irene survivors to clean up and rebuild their homes. They were given new safety codes, a list of building requirements, intense inspections with a lot of hoops to jump through before being allowed back into their homes. At the same time many homes were broken into and burgularized on a daily basis violating an entire community. The proposal to build safer homes sounds good on paper but at the meeting Mr. Fohlin referred to his plan as "i have a dream". This dream will cost the current residents whatever sum they recieve from FEMA, if they qualify to collect which some will not!
They were told that whatever sum of money FEMA deems their homes value must be turned over to the town if they would like to like in the "Irene Cottages" but will not own and the monthly rent is being promised at the current rate. If you look up "The Cottages" they come in three sizes, the smallest one bedroom is just over 400 square feet and the middle sized two bedroom is just over 500 square feet, about one half the size of the current two small bedroom trailers.
Mr. Fohlin said the town does NOT want it to be a community of the elderly, 55 and over but would prefer it to be mixed age groups. He also implied it would also not be low housing because the town will want to be able to increase the rent every year or two without having to appear before the rent control committee.
These homes have been a point of discussion for decades and this "dream" is one that may never be realized by these poor folks. The residents will be required to tear down their homes, some of which are very beautiful, pay to have them leveled and then removed. Residents will then be forced to move to housing that will not be affordable for many. I would just like the public to know some of the "true" facts presented at Tuesday's meeting and not just the fluff the town presented on paper.
Another fact: The Spruces uses natural gas for cooking and heating while the other parks require propane gas which will cost three times as much to heat with. These are verifiable facts!
Also, I've spoken with some of the town workers and even with town trucks they ofen find Statton Road undrivable. I DO NOT live at this park but I DO have a degree of compassion and apologize to the residents at The Spruces for the inhumane manner in which they are being treated.
I do believe that most of the town neighbors have nothing but good intentions when it comes to the unfortunate cirmcumstances that exists at The Spruces. But it is difficult to know thier pain unless you have lived on their budgets and walked in their shoes. They love their homes Mr. Fohlin to no less degree than you do your own.
I'm curious to know what exactly would satisfy the remaining residents of the Spruces. Despite everything that has been done for them, they aren't satisfied,and have a chip on their shoulders with regards to the very community that has shoveled money and help their way for fourteen months.
The flood plain problem hasn't gone away, and they are in still in harm's way - surely they realize that!
I doubt that the Irene Cottage idea will work, and the Lowry property idea will probably go down in flames. But people are putting an enormous amount of time and energy into trying to find solutions for the "Spruces refugees" - to a chorus of hateful, ungrateful sneers!