Selectwoman Jane Allen called for a communitywide conversation on land restrictions before approving anymore conservation parcels.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Selectwoman Jane Allen on Monday night successfully delayed a decision on a conservation restriction in an attempt to force a townwide discussion of the issue of conserved land.
The Board of Selectmen had on its agenda a request from Dr. Eric White to approve a restriction on three parcels comprising 39 acres of forested land and farmland on Oblong Road.
After White explained the purpose for placing the land in conservation, Allen suggested that the board not make a decision on his request and instead place the question of the restriction on the warrant for May's town meeting.
Only three members of the five-person board were in attendance at Monday's meeting, and it became apparent during discussion that Selectman Ronald Turbin was ready to vote in favor of White's proposal. However, Selectman Thomas Sheldon argued that a question this important should be heard by the full board when it is available, so when Turbin made a motion to approve the request, the motion went unseconded and no vote was held.
Allen made it clear that she was not objecting to White's proposal, per se. But with the town considering whether to take a different parcel out of conservation so that it can be developed for affordable housing, she felt the time was ripe for a full-fledged, townwide consideration of the issue.
"The issue I want to address is much bigger than considering the restriction requested by Dr. White," she said. "In no way does it reflect on any individual request. Open space is important, forest lands are important, farms are important. But they're not more important than other needs of the community.
"As selectmen, with the responsibility of seeing the big picture, I recommend drawing a line in the sand and not approving another conservation restriction until we have a communitywide conversation."
Turbin argued that while such a conversation is important, it was the Selectmen's job to make a decision on the merits of White's request rather than punting the issue over to town meeting.
"I would urge, as an elected body, we vote on it," Turbin said. "It's a parcel of land that I thinnk the conservation restriction was made for. It's historic. It goes back over 200 years. It's an agricultural resource for the community.
"I would urge the select board to vote on this. It's our job."
White outlined a plan that would protect the 39 acres from future development. Nearly half that acreage is wetland, forest property, but 19 acres is in acriculture, and local farmer Bill Stinson of Peace Valley Farm was one of the residents who rose to support White's request.
Dr. Eric White's request to protect 39 acres from development stymied on Monday night.
"It's all very good to have this discussion," Stinson said, referring to Allen's call for a townwide conversation. "This is a landowner with a good heart who wants to do something for the community. Every piece of land I've brought to the community came from there. That land has been valuable to my operation.
"If it was closer to town and on sewer [lines], I'd say bring [the question] to the town. This is a no-brainer in my opinion."
People on opposite sides of the debate over that other parcel of conserved land, the town-owned Lowry Property off Stratton Road, also joined the discussion over White's request — even though the properties are separated by more than three miles.
"It's the responsibility of the select board to vote," said former Selectman Ken Swiatek, a Stratton Road resident who is fighting the plan to take the Lowry Property out of conservation. "Dr. White spent hours and hours going to different town boards, and time is money to some people."
Swiatek challenged the notion that town meeting is a place for discussion of public issues.
"Town meeting is a great event, but it's not true democracy because not everyone comes," he said. "Town meeting is an 'extended club' of the town."
The chairman of the town's Affordable Housing Committee rose to thank Allen for doing something to provoke a conversation about the issue of conserved land.
Catherine Yamamoto cited statistics indicating that
96 89 percent of the town's approximately 30,000 acres are either forest, wetland, open space or farmland while only 4 11 percent was "for people."
Yamamoto said any discussion of how to use town land cannot ignore the fact that 155 residences were lost at the Spruces Mobile Home Park during 2011's Tropical Storm Irene.
"The discussion is really about people," she said. "It's about people living in town. It's about people who used to live in town and want to live in town."
White is free to make his request at future Selectmen's meetings, but it is was unclear on Monday night when the next full meeting of the board will take place. Turbin suggested at one point the board hold a special meeting in March on a date when all five members are in town so that White would be able to get an article on the town meeting warrant in advance of its April 1 deadline.
Speaking of town meeting, the board on Monday gave a nonbinding "green light" to Town Manager Peter Fohlin and Town Clerk Mary Kennedy to look into combining the previously scheduled May town election with an April 30 special primary for nominees to fill the seat of former Sen. John Kerry.
Accountants Vincent Viscuso and Dave Irwin reported the town's books were in good shape.
The town election currently is scheduled for May 14, the customary one week before the May 21 town meeting. But state law allows the town by a vote of the Selectmen to consolidate a local election with a state vote, if the two elections fall within 30 days of one another.
Fohlin said the advantages of consolidation would include convenience to the voter, reduced workload for poll workers and cost savings he characterized as "not overwhelmingly persuasive."
Other towns have avoided consolidation because they thought it might create voter confusion, Fohlin said.
But the three selectmen in attendance on Monday decided that the idea was worth exploring. Sheldon noted that he thought combining the local election with a statewide primary could even boost turnout at the former, which would be advantageous.
In other business, the board heard a an annual audit report by representatives from the Pittsfield accounting firm of Adelson, Moynihan and Kowalczyk. In general, Vincent Viscuso and Dave Irwin reported the town's books were in good shape. In response to a question from Sheldon, they said the town's current debt of about $3.4 million is well below the amount it could borrow under state law, which in Williamstown's case would be about $51 million.
Fohlin and the selectmen took advantage of the auditors' report to praise the efforts of town treasurer Janet Sadler and accountant Donna Estes for keeping town revenues where they should be.
Finally, the board set a special town meeting for Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall to consider lifting deed restrictions on two previously town-owned properties: the former site of the Williamstown Youth Center and a parcel near the Department of Public Works that the town sold to Countryside Landscaping (Purple Moon LLC). The former restriction is antiquated; the latter refers to a condition of sale long since met by the buyer, Fohlin explained.