Williamstown Board Hears Emotional Pleas For Spruces

By Stephen DravisWilliamstown Correspondent
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The Selectmen's meeting was crowded with residents questioning a plan to close the Spruces and building affordable housing elsewhere.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Selectmen on Monday night heard empassioned appeals by two residents of the Spruces Mobile Home Park who want the town to reconsider a plan that ultimately would lead to the park's closure.

Residents Linda Bell and Linda Chesbro spoke during the public comment period as the board discussed the town's application with park owner Morgan Management for Federal Emergency Management Hazard Mitigation Grant money.

"I've accomplished a lot for a single person, but this is the first home in my life I've ever been happy with, and the town of Williamstown wants to take it away from me," said Linda Bell, who appeared on the verge of tears as she pleaded her case to the Selectmen.

"This is a sin what's being done down there. ... Everyone in the Spruces takes good care of our homes. The majority of us want to stay."

Bell was among about a dozen residents who spoke during discussion of a plan that would see the town assume ownership of the land beneath homes like Bell's, place it in conservation and use federal money to develop affordable housing on town-owned land currently in conservation.

The goal, town officials say, is twofold: Remove the residents in 66 homes currently occupied at the privately owned park from harm's way and develop affordable housing on a parcel less prone to the kind of severe flooding that made 153 sites at the park uninhabitable after last year's Tropical Storm Irene.

Bell showed the Selectmen photographs of the inside of homes owned by herself and other Spruces residents, like Linda Chesbro, who also spoke at the meeting.

"You didn't even consider the residents," Chesbro said. "These are our homes. We own them. You just want to take it all away."

Chairman David Rempell thanked the Spruces residents and all town residents who attended the meeting to discuss the plan, first announced at the last fully-attended Selectmen's meeting on Nov. 13.

"It's no one's intent that it's 'we versus they,' " Rempell said. "We're dealing with complicated issues on many levels."

Town Manager Peter Fohlin, who announced the grant application on Nov. 13 — first to Spruces residents and later that evening to the town — emphasized that the town is still waiting to hear from FEMA. And he responded to criticism that has surfaced over the last month that the town pursued the grant without public discussion.

"It wasn't discussed sooner because we didn't think we'd get the grant," Fohlin said. "When ('super storm') Sandy hit, it was time to talk about ideas."

After the meeting, Selectman Thomas Sheldon clarified that the Selectmen had been informed about the grant application as long ago as last spring but shared Fohlin's concern that public discussion early in the process could do more harm than good.

Sheldon characterized the grant proposal as "a long shot" before the town this fall started to receive indications from FEMA that it might be approved.

Sheldon, who chaired the panel when the grant process began, said the board's initial discussions of a grant application grew out of executive session meetings to deal with Morgan Management's lawsuit against the town.

Discussion of "strategy with respect to ... litigation" is an allowable purpose of non-public executive sessions under the commonwealth's Open Meeting Law.

Above, Spruces resident Linda Bell shows the board photos of the interiors of Spruces homes, including hers. Below, Longview Terrace resident Robert Scerbo addresses the board about the use of conserved land.

Both Rempell and Fohlin on Monday acknowledged the human impact of any plan that would include closing the Spruces, which Morgan Management is on record saying it cannot operate with fewer than 180 homes — nearly three times the number of habitable sites at the park after Irene.

"I can't help you with your feelings about your home," Fohlin said, addressing Bell. "Those are valid, and I understand them."

Town officials say that if FEMA awards the grant, it would be a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to receive funding based on the pre-Irene value of the Spruces ($6.4 million) instead of the post-Irene value ($1.2 million).

The closure of the Spruces is just one aspect of the plan that has drawn objections.

Several of the speakers who addressed the board on Monday focused on the plan to take 30 acres of land off Stratton Road, the so-called Lowry property, out of conservation and develop it for affordable housing.

"If it was worth being put in conservation then, why is it less worthy now?" asked Longview Terrace resident Robert Scerbo.

"It's a special and unique piece of property, as is Burbank," he added, referencing another town-owned parcel that has been considered for development for affordable housing.

A couple of residents once again asked why the town is pursuing development of the Lowry property when it has two town-owned plots that are not "green space:" the former Photech Mill site on Cole Avenue and the former town garage site on Water Street.

Affordable Housing Committee Chairwoman Catherine Yamamoto tried to dispel the notion that the town is not actively pursuing those sites.

"We're looking at a lot of sites because we need a lot of sites," said Yamamoto, whose panel is on record saying the former town garage site is its No. 1 target for developing as many as 30 units of affordable housing.

In other business on Monday, the Selectmen set a March 26 deadline for nomination papers for those seeking office during the May 14 town election. Those applications will be available starting Feb. 1. The election will be followed on May 21 by town meeting.

The Selectmen also held a hearing to consider an alcoholic beverage compliance check failure at the Williams Inn on Nov. 6. Manager Carl Faulkner appeared before the board to represent the inn.

"We're terribly embarassed that this happened, and it will never happen again," Faulkner said.

Selectwoman Jane Allen noted that the Inn had not failed a compliance check since the Selectmen started running them in 2006.

"That's a good record," she said.

"Not good enough for us," Faulkner said.

The board voted 5-0 to issue a letter of warning and reprimand to the inn.

The board also voted 5-0 to allow the town to join North Adams and Adams in a grant application to investigate a regional 911 call center, or public safety answering point.

Tags: affordable housing,   conserved land,   FEMA,   Spruces,   

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