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Town Manager Peter Fohlin, right, talks with Spruces resident Peter Russell after Tuesday's meeting.

Williamstown OKs Spruces Acquisition

By Stephen Dravis
Williamstown Correspondent
09:09PM / Tuesday, December 10, 2013
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The members of the Williamstown Selectmen join in the applause for Town Manager Peter Fohlin after the vote.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — In a unanimous voice vote on Tuesday, the town decided to acquire the Spruces Mobile Home Park and keep the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant process on track.
 
The vote at Special Town Meeting essentially did two things: ensure the closure of the park in early 2016 and allow the town to make good on a $2.6 million commitment to the Highland Woods senior housing project being developed by Higher Ground and three other non-profits.
 
After a year marked by acrimony and discord over the issues of land use and affordable housing, Tuesday's vote also showed that Williamstown is unified in the belief that the Spruces property is unsafe and the FEMA grant is the town's best opportunity to address its housing needs.
 
One thing the vote did not do: surprise the grant's principal architect.
 
"I've been going to town meeting for 50 years," Town Manager Peter Fohlin said. "Nothing town meeting ever does surprises me."
 
On the other hand, the chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen was stunned.
 
"I was blown away," Chairwoman Jane Allen said. "As you could see, it was overwhelming."
 
The three-article Special Town Meeting warrant was dispensed in about 10 minutes, and that included a lengthy preamble from Town Moderator Adam Filson about the need for civility during public comments.
 
As it turned out, not a single resident rose to speak either for or against the warrant articles.
 
"Thank you for making my job so easy," Filson said after meeting passed the first — and most important — article with neither discussion nor a dissenting vote.
 
The meeting's only speed bump came at the end, when Selectman David Rempell interrupted Filson's call for a motion to adjourn.
 
"This community just made a giant leap forward to help the people of the Spruces, about whom we all care deeply ... and to start to build the affordable housing that is so desparately needed," Rempell said. "There are many, many folks who have allowed us to do this tonight in such an overwhelming, unanimous fashion.
 
"There is one person who has worked diligently for a number of years to make this happen. It hasn't been easy, and I think as a community we need to recognize the work of Peter Fohlin."
 
Fohlin received a standing ovation from the crowd of 232 registered voters and numerous pats on the back after the meeting. But he already was thinking about the next step in a long process that began when Tropical Storm Irene ravaged the Spruces in 2011.
 
"This is just the beginning," Fohlin said. "Now the hard part starts."
 
The next two milestones on the horizon: the issuance of letters of discontinuance to the 66 households still living at the Spruces and the hiring of a relocation agent to assist those residents and distribute residents' share of the FEMA grant.
 
Town Moderator Adam Filson was concerned about civility but no one even spoke.
The first step could happen as soon as the middle of next month, Fohlin said. The town needs to work out its lease agreement with park owner Morgan Management, which wants Williamstown to operate the Spruces during the 24-month period required under Massachusetts law after residents are notified of the intent to close (or discontinue) a manufactured home park.
 
As for the relocation agent, Fohlin said the deadline is Dec. 23 for bids to serve that role.
 
"So far, we have two firms that have expressed an interest," he said. "Hopefully, we get one qualified bidder who can be approved by [the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development]."
 
While it is clear that work needs to be done, Tuesday night was a time to recognize how much has been accomplished — particularly in the last few weeks as town officials educated voters about the Special Town meeting.
 
"We've just come so far from the last Special Town Meeting, as a community," Allen said. "I'm just so proud of us.
 
"I hoped that people would come, but I never, ever thought they would come without one single question. ... These are very discriminating voters. They don't just say, 'Yes.' They're very thoughtful. They're very intelligent and knowledgeable. To have them all come tonight ... to say 'Yes' to this is so affirming.
 
"And I think it's really affirming to the residents of the Spruces because this has been all about them all along."

Tags: special town meeting,   Spruces,   

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