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Williamstown Awarded Grant to Demolish Spruces

By Stephen Dravis
Williamstown Correspondent
01:24PM / Wednesday, March 27, 2013
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The number of homes in the Spruces Mobile Home Park was reduced by two-thirds after the park flooded during Hurricane Irene.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town has been awarded a $6.13 million federal grant to use toward the acquisition and destruction of the Spruces Mobile Home Park.

The money is coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and is intended to get residents out of harm's way and ensure no one ever moves back to the Main Street site, which resides on a flood plain and was decimated by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Williamstown partnered with the park's owner, Morgan Management, in applying for the grant, which was sought to help settle a lawsuit against the town by the Rochester, N.Y.,-based landowner. Under the agreement, Morgan Management will donate the park land to the town and all but $600,000 from the $6.13 million grant, Town Manager Peter Fohlin said on Wednesday.

The town received word on Tuesday that it was to be awarded the grant.

"It was in my mailbox yesterday morning," Fohlin said on Wednesday. "We scheduled a meeting with residents of the Spruces yesterday afternoon. Out of respect to the residents, we wanted them to hear it first. We didn't want them to hear it through the media. We met from 3 to 5 yesterday afternoon."

The town posted the FEMA announcement on its website on Wednesday morning.

The leader of a group of residents who were trying to mount an effort to buy and save the park said Wednesday he was disappointed but not surprised the town received the grant.

Peter Russell of Save Our Spruces said he does not foresee any continued effort by the residents to challenge the closure.

"My reaction is now that the grant is awarded, I do not believe 51 percent of the residents want to purchase the park," Russell said. "That's what I told the town manager yesterday.

"There's a great many people in the park who want that money. You can't argue with them."

According to the grant as written, about $1.4 million is designated for relocation costs for the 65 households who remain in the Spruces, a park that lost 153 home sites after Irene. Another $341,250 of the grant was slated to go toward rental assistance for displaced residents — up to $5,250 per household for each owner/occupant.

Under the FEMA program, the town also would have an obligation to assist the remaining Spruces residents in finding alternative housing.

"[That process] is going to be complex and time-consuming and labor-intensive," Fohlin said. "I can imagine us saying, 'We have a lead on two trailers for sale at Wheel Estates,' or, 'We have a lead on vacancies at a place in Pittsfield,' or whatever."

He said he already knows of at least two Spruces homeowners (one couple, one individual) who are waiting for the grant to be finalized so they can move to new homes they already have identified.

The original grant application sought about $6.2 million dollars. The notification from FEMA says the final grant will be $6.13 million. Fohlin said on Wednesday the exact dollar figure likely was reduced to ensure that other projects in the commonwealth could be funded from the HGMP coffers.

He noted that the total amount of federal funds spent on the hazard mitigation program for any one storm is set as a percentage of what FEMA paid out in claims on the storm itself.

"This isn't a question of the federal government getting cheap," he said.

As articulated by Fohlin at the announcement of the grant application last November, the grant was expected to yield enough money to compensate the residents, demolish the park and leave a balance estimated at $3 million for the town to use to develop affordable housing.

The last provision is not a condition of the grant. Fohlin has stressed repeatedly in the intervening months that FEMA's priority is getting houses out of a flood plain; the town's choice is to build replacement housing.

This week's communication from FEMA underlines that point.

"This grant will fund the acquisition and demolition of 65 mobile homes and 2 common building structures in the Spruces Mobile Home Park that were more than 50 percent damaged by tropical storm Irene," the agency wrote. "Once acquired, all structures from the property will be demolished and removed. The area will be returned to open space."

Tentative plans for housing on the Lowry property off Stratton Road. See 'A Question of Land' for other information.

When that happens is still an open question. Fohlin said Wednesday that there is a 36-month deadline for spending the grant money, but he has not been told when that clock will start ticking. Although the town has been notified by email that the grant is approved, it has not received an official grant contract.

"No clocks have started," Fohlin said. "The paperwork comes later."

Once the contract arrives, Fohlin said he anticipates the Board of Selectmen will vote on whether to accept the grant.

While the grant may seem a fait accompli, it is less clear how the town might spend any of that estimated $3 million balance. The plan outlined by Fohlin in November calls for development of town-owned land off Stratton Road currently under the control of the Conservation Commission.

That part of the plan touched off a firestorm that led to, among other things, an April 24 special town meeting on the future of the so-called Lowry property.

Even though much still remains to be debated, there is no denying that this week's FEMA announcement marks a significant milestone in the town's efforts to address its affordable housing needs. Those needs already were sizeable before the town lost 153 homes to Irene and, soon, 65 more to the wrecking ball.

The chairman of the town's Affordable Housing Committee on Wednesday said the grant represents an opportunity for the community to move forward.

"Our thoughts are with the current and former residents of the Spruces," Catherine Yamamoto said. "After many months of uncertainty, they can now begin to plan their futures. The Affordable Housing Committee looks forward to assisting them in every way possible as they consider their options. For the town as a whole, it is a time to work together to create housing that is suitable and affordable so that these residents — our neighbors, relatives, and friends — may continue to enjoy life in Williamstown."

Save Our Spruces Chairman Russell said he does not know where his life will take him, but he plans to stay in the Spruces as long as possible.

"We've got at least two to three years to get prepared," Russell said. "I think that's plenty of time for people to adjust.

"I'm going to stay to the very end and make the transition. I'll do what I can to help people. ... My reaction when I got home [Tuesday evening] was: I'll say to the very end, then put everything in storage and backpack around the world, what the hell."

Updated, complete write-through at 5:04 p.m.


Tags: affordable housing,   FEMA,   Irene,   Spruces,   

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