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Citizens Petition Calls for Vote on Williamstown Land

By Tammy Daniels
iBerkshires Staff
01:13PM / Tuesday, March 12, 2013
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The plan for the Lowry property has 41 affordable housing units.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The debate over the use of the so-called Lowry property for affordable housing took another turn on Monday night with the submission of a citizens' petition calling for a special election to determine the land's fate.

Sarah Thurston of Stratton Road and Robert Scerbo of Longview Terrace, representing a larger group, presented the petition to the Selectmen with 312 signatures, 100 more than needed, to allow voters to decide whether to put Lowry and the Burbank farm into restrictive conservation by balloting.

Both lands are owned by the town and were placed under the jurisdiction of the Conservation Commission by town meeting in 1987. Both properties have been considered locations for affordable housing, particularly the easily accessible 30-acre Lowry property on Stratton Road. The majority of the 139-acre Burbank property is on the opposite side of Stratton and south of Longview Terrace.

The town is in line for a $6.25 million grant federal grant to buy the Spruces Mobile Home Park and develop affordable housing to replace it on a third of the Lowry land.

The consideration of those lands prompted the formation of a group, Friends of Williamstown Conserved Lands, and calls for the preservation of open space. Thurston said later in an email that there was a feeling that the process for the grant and park purchase had not been transparent enough and the conversation "very one-sided in favor of using conservation land for development" without taking into account its benefits to the community.

The petition drive began about two weeks ago when it was learned that it would take votes by the Conservation Commission, the Selectmen and town meeting — not the Legislature — to develop the land.

The Lowry land had been purchased in the 1950s as a possible location for Mount Greylock Regional High School. It is currently being hayed by a local farmer. The Burbank land was acquired for back taxes in 1950; the family that had been farming the land continues to do so.

Many of those opposed are abutters but Thurston, on presenting the petition, said the signatures represented "a geographically diverse group of concerned citizens."

For Selectman Tom Costley, the meeting was the right time for the board to engage in a debate over an issue that has been fomenting for months.

"People are questioning the need for affordable housing," he said, adding that he had been quizzed at a recent cocktail party and didn't have the answers.

"Town meeting usually gets it right but [this issue] is overdue for us discuss this ...  We have never talked about it because we can't unless we're here."

The master plan determined in 2002 that the town was 164 units short of affordable housing to meet goals of 10 percent of all housing, prior to the flooding of the Spruces. The Lowry property had been the prime candidate for housing development at that point, too. A new report on housing needs will be presented at the Affordable Housing Committee on April 18.

Scerbo suggested the brownfields — at Photech and the town garage — should be looked at first and said Williamstown ranks No. 8 in the county for affordable housing. The town wouldn't just be building for Williamstown residents since there are requirements for setting aside units for those out of town, he added.

Sarah Thurston and Robert Scerbo presented a petition calling for a special town meeting to place a conservation restriction on the Lowry property. The petition was validated Tuesday; it was to be reviewed by town counsel before the Selectmen set a date.

"The affordable housing we create is for a very large area," said Scerbo. "The affordable housing we're talking about is subsidized housing."

The town should be looking strategically ahead to what units were coming on the market that could become affordable housing, he said, even if it was one unit at a time.

"I think what's pretty clear at that approach we will never ever get to the Lowry property," said Fohlin, adding that separated apartments "totally ignores any sensitivity to the people living at the Spruces who want a sense of community."

Selectman Thomas Sheldon said there was a lot of confusion and misinformation and a need for leadership — and more "cross-pollination and speaking over the fences."

Despite the town's prior support of funding for affordable housing, Costley thought its commitment was shallow.

"When 89 percent [of the town] is not buildable and we're having a discussion about this ... It's not Lowry, it's us," he said.

"I think it's fear of the unknown and a lot of preconceived notions about what we're talking about," said Fohlin. The goal was to give people who make $30,000 a year a place to live. He pointed out that Haleyville had basically been an affordable housing development for GIs returning after the war that has since been completely transformed.

Thurston and Scerbo said a special town meeting would allow a full discussion of the matter, rather than being one article among many on the annual town meeting warrant.

"I don't think affordable housing and conservation have to be on two separate sides of the equation," said Thurston. "I think they can work together ... We should be not be seen as not supporting affordable housing."

More on the debate over land and housing can be found here.


Tags: affordable housing,   citizens petition,   conserved land,   

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