The Spruces Roof Group has decided to continue to meet but on a less frequent schedule.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The controversy over developing conserved land may have died down — for now — but the meetings will continue.
The Spruces Roof Group, born of this spring's debate over the potential for developing affordable housing on one of two town-owned sites, decided at its Monday meeting that it will continue to meet.
"I would think we'd still have a role in responding to the motions set aside at [April's] special town meeting, at least as we go to the next special town meeting," said committee member Hank Art, who represents the Conservation Commission on the "supercommittee."
"I would think we would want to have some recommendation for whatever warrant article is coming before the town on behalf of this group. Things at the last special town meeting were somewhat chaotic ... having an opportunity for us as a committee to at least one more time report back to the community might be met with enthusiasm in the town."
The "Roof Group" was formed under the name Long-term Coordinating Committee by the Selectmen in May. It pulled together representatives from seven town committees plus incoming Selectmen Chairwoman Jane Allen in an effort to resolve the questions that surrounded proposed development on one parcel of conserved land (the Lowry property) and potential for development on another (the Burbank property).
The debate over the two properties came to a head at a pair of special town meetings on one night in April, where voters decided to make no decision on the controversy.
"The suggestion to [take a timeout] was based on the need of the town to do its due diligence so a comprehensive plan can be brought to the [voters]," then-Selectmen Chairman David Rempell said on the night the Spruces Roof Group was created.
Four months later, the town is no closer to knowing whether it can develop either parcel. But it is apparent it lacks the political will to try.
Last month, the Select Board decided on a 3-1 vote to withdraw an application to the Con Comm to release portions of Lowry and Burbank for study as potential housing sites. And town leaders are lining up behind a plan driven by a local non-profit to build replacement housing on private land being donated by Williams College.
"I've heard from various people on the committee and outside ... that given our mission and purpose and goals, is our work finished or do we need to continue to meet as a group?" Allen asked the SRG on Monday evening.
The only item on the agenda for the next Roof Group meeting — date to be determined — is a meeting with a representative from one of four non-profits developing the Higher Ground-led project at the end of Southworth Street.
Higher Ground President Bilal Ansari attended Monday's meeting to ask Allen's committee to sit down with Mollye Wolahan of Boston's Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development. The Women's Institute and its partners (Higher Ground, Berkshire Housing Development Corp. and the Williamstown Elderly Housing Corp. are looking for support from various town boards and committees before they seek funding for the project.
"As a town and as town committees, we need to make sure we give this project all the support that it needs," Allen said Monday.
"I do think if Mollye wants to come and meet with us, that would be wonderful to have her come because she's a very experienced developer. She could tell us ... what she needs from us."
Allen said she did not want the Roof Group to disband, but she suggested that it abandon its biweekly meeting schedule in favor of meetings "as needed."
Presumably one of those meetings would come later this fall to take an advisory position in advance of an expected special town meeting regarding the Spruces Mobile Home Park. Under terms of a $6 million federal Hazard Mitigation Grant, the town would need to decide this fall whether to take possession of the park with the intent of closing it.
The town is waiting for a decision from the attorney general's office about whether last month's vote by park residents represents a valid rejection of their "right of first refusal" to purchase the park from Morgan Management before the land can be transferred to the town.
A majority of the 66 households remaining at the 226-site park voted not to join together to buy the property. But that vote was held before an official notification was received from Morgan of its intent to sell.
The displacement of those 66 households — as well as the loss of 153 homes immediately after 2011's Tropical Storm Irene — prompted the town to propose last fall that it develop a portion of the Lowry property ... and set in motion the creation of the Spruces Roof Group.
The Higher Ground project on the Williams-donated parcel was announced on June 20, but it is unknown how many residences can be created on the less than 4-acre site. No one from Higher Ground has suggested the site can accommodate anywhere near the more than 200 residents lost at the Spruces.
Allen reiterated Monday a fear expressed frequently at town committee meetings that multiple subsidized housing projects in town would be competing with one another for the same state and federal dollars. That is one argument some have used for throwing all of the town's support behind the Higher Ground project.
Affordable Housing Committee Chairwoman Catherine Yamamoto, who serves on the Roof Group, said such "competition" is not a danger.
"[Massachusetts Undersecretary for Housing and Community Development Aaron Gornstein] may have said 'focus on one project,' but he didn't say funding would be in competition," Yamamoto said. "I asked Mollye Wolahan, and she said they wouldn't compete because the timelines [for the projects] would be different."
In other business on Monday, the Roof Group discussed the results of a housing report commissioned by the AHC by Vermont consultant John Ryan and the results of a survey of Spruces residents and former residents conducted by Higher Ground.
It also discussed a proposal floated by Planning Board and Roof Group member Ann McCallum to remediate the flooding problem at the Spruces site. McCallum said she discussed with developer David Carver of Scarafoni Associates the possibility of carving out compensatory water storage on the Spruces property in order to allow fill in another section.
"You would take away housing as required [under the FEMA grant] and then carve out a new lot and make that lot not in any flood plain and build," McCallum said.
Art of the Conservation Commission noted that such a plan could be a tough sell under the commonwealth's Wetlands Protection Act.
"You're in fact moving the hundred-year flood plain," Art said. "It's permissible to do that, but it's extraordinary."
In addition, any such scheme to build new housing on the Spruces site seems directly at odds with the terms of the grant as laid out in a contract
from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (the grant's administrator) available on the town's website:
"No significant excavation or earthmoving activities are planned," the contract reads in one paragraph.
"All residents will be relocated to decent, safe and sanitary dwellings. All existing structures will be removed and no new structures will be permitted on the site in accordance with the FEMA Model Deed Restriction," reads the next paragraph.