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Williamstown Meeting Will Decide Future of Spruces

By Stephen Dravis
12:25PM / Monday, December 09, 2013
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Williamstown decides on Tuesday night whether to acquire the damaged Spruces Mobile Home Park and the FEMA grant that goes along with it to be used toward affordable housing.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The year 2013 began with a special town meeting so contentious it threatened to paralyze town government.
It is ending with a special town meeting so non-controversial that town officials' biggest concern seems to be making sure anyone shows up.
On Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Williamstown Elementary School, the town will be asked to consider three warrant articles that — taken together — would allow the town to operate the Spruces Mobile Home Park for two years, oversee its closure and eventually take possession of the land that is home to the once-thriving retirement community.
Last week, Selectmen Chairwoman Jane Allen encouraged voters to attend during a meeting that was telecast on the town's community access television station.
"I encourage people to come," Allen said at the last meeting of the Spruces Roof Group for the foreseeable future. "I encourage them to vote yes.
"It may be a short meeting, but people will come and be a part of something very important. I hope people don't have special town meeting fatigue."
In fact, it has been an eventful year for special town meetings in Williamstown, which in addition to last spring's meeting to consider development on town-owned land in conservation has seen two special Fire District meetings this fall to consider the potential purchase of a Main Street parcel for the purpose of building a new fire house.
Tuesday's meeting is far from insignificant.
In fact, it is hard to imagine anything more significant than a vote that could put the town on the path to evicting residents from 66 homes that still remain at the park.
But the park's owner, Morgan Management, is on record saying the Spruces is not financially viable at its level of occupancy post 2011's Tropical Storm Irene, and likely would close the park whether or not the town takes possession.
And the town's acquisition of the park under the terms of a federal Hazard Mitigation Grant also will enable Williamstown to access the grant money — $2.6 million of which has been earmarked to help build replacement senior housing on a parcel being donated by Williams College to a non-profit consortium of developers.
In November, Town Manager Peter Fohlin hypothesized about the consequences of a special town meeting that resulted in a vote not to accept the land:
"The town would have the option, the Board of Selectmen would have the option, of going forward on the basis that Morgan Management would issue a closure notice for the park, that the town as the subgrantee would still have its obligation under the grant to find alternative housing for the residents of the Spruces, and Morgan Management would receive the benefit, not of $600,000 but $4.7 million, and, at the end, Morgan Management would have to find someone to accept a conservation restriction on the property — someone like the Trustees of Reservations, the town of Williamstown or Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation," Fohlin said at a Selectmen's meeting.
"We would have a lot of work to do over the next two years and legal obligations to the tenants of the park and nothing to show for it in the end."
Tuesday's work includes passage of three separate articles.
The first item on the agenda is the most significant piece of business. It asks the town whether it will accept possession of the park "by gift, purchase or eminent domain" at some point before the March 2016 FEMA deadline to return the park's land to a natural state.
The second and third articles deal with how the town will manage the park during the 24-month period required under Massachusetts law for notification to tenants of the intent to close a mobile home park. Article 2 would allow the town to enter into a lease agreement with Morgan Management. Article 3 would set up a revolving fund to handle rent from Spruces residents (many of whom own their homes but pay rent to Morgan for the land).
All three articles require a simple majority vote of the voters who attend Tuesday's meeting.
Selectmen Chairwoman Jane Allen and Town Manager Peter Fohlin preview the warrant with Citizens in League.


Tags: federal grants,   FEMA,   special town meeting,   Spruces,   


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