Williamstown Housing Trust Faces Opposition on CPA Funds

By Stephen DravisWilliamstown Correspondent
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The CPA Committee heard applications for restoration work at Southlawn Cemetery, chimney work at the Col. Benjamin Simond House, a hiking trail around the Lowry Property, funding for the Affordable Housing Trust and a well at Margaret Lindley Park.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Community Preservation Committee on Wednesday heard from applicants seeking funds to advance projects ranging from preserving the home of a town founder to providing homes for those in need.

The CPC is responsible for vetting applications for grants from money raised through the Community Preservation Act, a surcharge on property taxes (excluding the first $100,000 of valuation), first approved by the town in 2002.

This year, the committee is considering five applications, which it can recommend for approval or denial by May's town meeting.

The largest request before the committee came from the town's newest municipal entity, the Affordable Housing Trust, which was created at the 2012 town meeting. The trust is seeking $200,000, the same amount it received in May.

The trust has no specific project in mind for the money, explained Stanley Parese, the chairman of the board of trustees.

"It's so the trust has funds on hands if an opportunity comes along," he told the CPC. "It's a way to get money teed up for the purpose of creating affordable housing."

Both Parese and fellow Trustee Catherine Yamamoto spoke in support of the application, along with Van Ellet, who serves with Yamamoto on the town's Affordable Housing Committee.

They explained that money in the Affordable Housing Trust could be used down the line to acquire property for projects large or small to meet what town officials universally recognize is a need that existed prior to and was exacerbated by 2011's Tropical Storm Irene.

"We haven't found there to be a great amount of development land in the community, but having the option to study or buy a piece of land if it becomes available in the future would be most welcome by the committee," Ellet said.

Last year, the CPC recommended by a vote of 7-0-1 that town meeting approve the $200,000 request.

On Tuesday, CPC Chairman Philip McKnight said he has concerns about the application.

"At our next meeting, I'll recommend that the application be withdrawn and you seek your funds from the regular town budget," McKnight told Parese.

McKnight previewed the case he will make at that meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m.

"This applicant seeks $200,000 for its use in the future," he said. "We're being asked to bankroll your committee without any plan."

McKnight contrasted the trust's application with other applications the CPC fields - including the other four on this year's agenda - which have concrete goals.

Community Preservation Act money can be used for community housing, historic preservation, open space and recreational land.

CPC member Dan Gendron disagreed with McKnight on the question of whether the trust's application should be withdrawn.

"I don't see how it challenges the act," Gendron said.

McKnight said he hoped the issue would be explored more fully at the Jan. 29 meeting.

Although the Affordable Housing Trust has no specific plan for the money it seeks, one plan for subsidized housing on town land did enter the discussion on Wednesday night.

Ken Swiatek's recently formed Friends of Williamstown Conservation Lands asked for about $548 in CPC funds to help create a walking/hiking trail around the 30-acre parcel of town-owned land known as the Lowry Property.

The Lowry Property has been identified by town officials as an area where it would like to develop affordable housing - a move that would require taking the land out of conservation.

Under questioning from Gendron about his motives for the application, Swiatek, who lives adjacent to the Lowry Property on Stratton Road, said his idea for a walking trail predates November's announcement of a plan to build houses on the site.

"I certainly oppose using it for affordable housing, but that's not why we're here," Swiatek said.

Yamamoto said during the meeting that she feels the walking/hiking trail would be compatible - even complementary - with any development of the site. And in fact, the Affordable Housing Committee's plans for Lowry envision mixed use with space for recreation.

After the meeting, Swiatek stopped short of agreeing that the two plans could be compatible.

"I think we're confident it's going to remain conserved property," he said. "If for some reason it doesn't, it may be difficult to obtain the volunteer labor (to maintain the trail), which is a big part of the proposal."

CPC members suggested that Swiatek's proposal was premature without the approval of the Conservation Commission, which manages Lowry and other town-owned land in conservation. Swiatek replied that he attempted to raise the issue at Con Comm's last meeting but was denied a spot on the agenda.

Ellet, who presided over that meeting as the vice chairman of the Con Comm, explained that Chairman Hank Art was out of town and asked that all issues related to the hotly-contested Lowry issue be kept off the agenda until the full Conservation Commission was present.

The Conservation Commission itself was an applicant before the CPC on Wednesday night. Con Comm is seeking $65,000 in CPC funds to dig a new well to serve the bath house at Margaret Lindley Park, a popular swimming hole. The well failed 10 years ago and there is no potable water and only portable sanitation facilities at the park.

Regina Rouse was back before the CPC for what may be a final time to seek funds to restore gravestones at Southlawn Cemetery.

Rouse told the committee the South Williamstown historical committee first sought funds for the project in 2003 and has received $150,000 in CPA funds to date, allowing it to restore 245 markers at the site, the resting place of 21 veterans of the Revolutionary War, among other historical figures.

This year, the group is asking for $25,000, the same amount it received last year, and Rouse told the committee she is confident that sum will help them conclude the restoration project.

Finally, owners of the home of Revolutionary War hero and town father Col. Benjamin Simonds asked for $2,000 to help restore the home's chimney. David and Judy Loomis operate River Bend Farm Bed and Breakfast on the site, and the home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tags: affordable housing trust,   CPA,   historic preservation,   

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