Williamstown Applies For Grant to Buy, Demolish Spruces
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.
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.)
The park's owners in August dropped a lawsuit against the town, state and residents dealing with conditions there. At the time, Fohlin said the town and Morgan were involved in "good faith discussions" about the park's future.
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.
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.
Just last week, the Con Comm renewed the three-year permit for Williamstown farmer Kim Wells to hay the land off Stratton Road, but as he noted at the meeting, there is language in the permit allowing the town to terminate it before the end of the agreement.
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.
Tags: affordable housing, federal grants, FEMA, Irene, Spruces,