Williamstown Residents Question Town's Actions on Land
The Affordable Housing Trust and Committee tried to fend off suggestions that the town will push through an affordable housing plan without residents' input.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — At Tuesday night's meeting of the Affordable Housing Trust, trust was very much an issue.
The trustees held a joint meeting with the Affordable Housing Committee to discuss, among other things, a looming special town meeting spurred by a citizens' petition calling the question of whether the town should perpetually conserve 30 acres of town-owned land known as the Lowry property.
Read Part 1 here.
The author of the petition attended the Tuesday meeting and told trustees and committee it was response to a perception that the town had broken trust with residents who placed the property off Stratton Road under control of the Conservation Commission more than 25 years ago.
"In 1987, when residents voted these properties into conservation, they were under the impression they were under Chapter 97," Sarah Thurston said, referring to Lowry and the 139-Burbank property, which both are named in the third article of the special town meeting warrant.
"The town counsel's opinion betrayed the trust of the voters who voted in 1987. ... We feel our hand was forced."
Thurston referenced a March 25 letter to the Board of Selectmen by Joel Bard of the Boston law firm Kopelman & Paige. In it, Bard advised that the property, initially acquired for the town as a location for a high school that never materialized, is not protected by Article 97 of Massachusetts General Law, which covers land "taken or acquired" for purposes of open space.
Although both Lowry and Burbank have been discussed as possible locations for subsidized housing in town over the years and were identified specifically as potential in the most recent town Master Plan (2002), the issue came to a head last November when Town Manager Peter Fohlin announced plans to seek a $6 million federal Hazard Mitigation Grant and use part of the proceeds to begin developing affordable housing on Lowry.
In the months that followed, there have been numerous discussions before various town boards, an Open Meetings Law complaint, finger pointing in both directions and Thurston and others' call for the April 24 special town meeting.
Trustee Chairman Stanley Parese said affordable housing shouldn't be limited to brown fields like the Photech and the former garage.
But both sides agreed Tuesday night there has been too little direct conversation between opponents of Lowry development — including multiple abutters like Thurston — and advocates for affordable housing.
"I think there needs to be a focus group around the same table," Affordable Housing Committee member Bilal Ansari said on Tuesday. "If we can take this tone and move forward, maybe this is the day it turns around and we begin talking to each other instead of at each other."
If Thurston's warrant article is rejected and a contradictory article suggested by the Selectmen is adopted by the special town meeting, the question would go to the Conservation Commission. And if — as the selectmen's article specifies — 10 acres of Lowry is ultimately slated for development, the conversation would shift from whether to develop to how to develop.
Officials Tuesday sought to address concerns that abutters would be ignored during the development phase.
"My understanding is ... the town looks at properties it owns and what might be developable and engages experts to do due diligence," Affordable Housing Committee member Charles Bonenti said. "This is exactly what we're doing now with the [Community Preservation Act] money we got. An RFP (request for proposals) would make it clear to a developer what our expecations are for the property.
"We represent you. ... When the town is talking to a developer, we want your voices, too."
Such assurances drew scoffs from development foes at the back of the crowded Selectmen's Meeting Room who could be heard sarcastically muttering, "Trust us."
Affordable Housing Trustee Frederick Puddester pressed Stratton Road resident Suzanne Kemple on the issue.
"Is the fear that the town would do an RFP, the developer would come back with a proposal and there will be no discussion?" Puddester asked.
"The fear is that you'll be desperate, and you'll come back [to residents] and say, 'Sorry, this is all we can do,'" Kemple said.
Kemple was one of several residents on the panel and in the audience who expressed hope for a more productive, cooperative process going forward.
Most of the people in the room agreed there was too much misinformation and confusion. Trust Chairman Stanley Parese attempted to provide a primer in the issues related to affordable housing and Lowry for viewers on the town's community access channel who may have been learning about the issue for the first time. The panels also took time Tuesday to review all of the town-owned sites actively being considered for subsidized housing, including the former town garage site at 59 Water St., and the former PhoTech property on Cole Avenue.
They also touched on a privately held property, the Cable Mills property on Water Street. Boston-based Mitchell properties plans to include 13 rental units of affordable housing if and when that long-delayed project gets under way. And town officials are hopeful Mitchell will consider developing even more subsidized housing sites on the south end of the Cable Mills property.
Parese also took time to clarify what "affordable housing" means as a term in town planning. Essentially, it refers to some sort of government subsidized housing. He also explained that while the Spruces Mobile Home Park is not affordable housing in the strict sense the town's housing needs are exacerbated by the loss of more than 200 housing sites at the park — most in the immediate aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, the remaining 66 after the town acquires and demolishes the park as a condition of the FEMA grant.
"By state standards, we should have 10 percent," of housing units in town as affordable housing, Parese said. "We have 145, and on the day of Irene, we lost 166 at the Spruces. When that group of people living in the Spruces lost their homes, those are people who need affordable housing. [The park] was an inexpensive place to live, and now it's gone. So if people are going to live inexpensively, something needs to fill that void."
The town hopes to fill that void, in part, by developing a community of single-family homes on Lowry that replicates the kind of community enjoyed at the Spruces before it became apparent that the flood-prone site is unsustainable.
"I refuse to say that the people who lived in this town for a long time in single-family homes and lost them in a disaster have two choices: Get into a dense development on a brown field or you leave," Parese said. "I'm not prepared to suggest that's the binary choice for those people. ... That's what I firmly believe is the case, and at this moment in the history of the town with the decisions that have to be made, I want to be unambiguously in favor of doing that which is most compassionate to the people who lost everything."
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