Williamstown Community Preservation Panel Reviews Applicants

By Stephen DravisWilliamstown Correspondent
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The Highland Woods project is one of three affordable housing requests before the Community Preservation Committee this year.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Community Preservation Committee on Tuesday night began reviewing the applications for CPA funds for fiscal 2015.

A total of six projects in the areas of historical preservation, open space and affordable housing applied for the funds, which will be dispersed by town meeting in May.

The CPC makes recommendations to town meeting on how to allocate funds, which are generated from a 2 percent property tax surcharge (excepting the first $100,000 in valuation) and matching funds from the commonwealth.

The committee Tuesday heard explanations of each funding request from applicants and began grappling with the fact that meeting all of the requests before the committee likely would require significant depletion of the town's Community Preservation Act reserve funds.

The applications total a little more than $510,000 with individual applications ranging from $175,000 to preserve open space at a proposed Minerva Arts Center campus on Main Street to $17,571 for historical preservation and curatorial work at the Williamstown Historical Museum (nee House of Local History).

Chairman Philip McKnight on Tuesday said the town anticipates raising about $266,000 in new CPA funds in fiscal 2015. It has $187,500 in an account earmarked specifically for open space acquisition and another $137,000 in unrestricted reserve funds.

Of the $266,000, the committee needs to dedicate, by statute, at least 10 percent to each of the three CPA purposes: open space, historic preservation and affordable housing.

Against that fiscal backdrop, the committee had some pointed questions for the applicants. Although McKnight defined Tuesday's meeting as a chance to ask for "clarifications" on each application, several times the discussion drifted into discussions of each application's merits.

Committee member Jeffrey Thomas asked why there are three different applications and multiple groups in town working on "ostensibly one issue," affordable housing.

"As I've been involved in affordable housing for the last six or seven years, it's a very, very complicated world," Affordable Housing Committee Chairwoman Catherine Yamamoto answered. "There are many organizations — state, local, federal  and many funding sources. It's an alphabet soup of agencies."

In fact, on Tuesday, Yamamoto was speaking not for her committee but for the town's Affordable Housing Trust, of which she is a trustee.

All the CPA applications for 2015 can be found here

The trust has two applications for CPA money: one for $75,000 to create a pilot program of acquiring and rehabbing distressed properties that can be rented to income-eligible families or sold with a deed restriction and another for $75,000 to help replace money the trust allocated to the Highland Woods senior housing project on Southworth Street.

Trustee Stanley Parese appeared before the committee in support of the second application.

He explained that the trust, created at town meeting 2012, has committed $150,000 to Highland Woods, which is planned to supply about 40 replacement units toward the 225 units of housing lost at the Spruces Mobile Home Park because of Tropical Storm Irene.

That money — and all of the approximately $400,000 in the trust's treasury — came from CPA allocations at the last two town meetings.

"Highland Woods' application to us [in December] ... is a good example of why the trust needs to have ready and unrestricted funds at its disposal," Parese said in a meeting telecast on the town's community access television station, WilliNet. "It's not an exaggeration to say at this time last year, no one envisioned that project — the trigger point of which was the willingness of the college to give the land.

"[The developers] were at the point of needing to prepare for a round of funding requests to the commonwealth for low-income housing tax credits, and it was important that we as a community demonstrated that support. The $150,000 commitment was time-sensitive and important, and no one could have stood here in the normal annual funding cycle of a town meeting and predict that."

Although no one at the table questioned the merits of the Highland Woods project, which itself is seeking $100,000 in CPA money, committee member and Town Manager Peter Fohlin asked the project's principal developer to come to the committee's Feb. 4 meeting with more specifics.

"I'd like to see some sensitivity analysis to the $100,000," Fohlin told Elton Ogden, the CEO of Pittsfield's Berkshire Housing Development Corp. "We can say it will be used to keep rents affordable, but that doesn't tell me what that means. ... How could [$100,000] affect the monthly rent of a tenant in an apartment? ... I'd like to know the magnitude of that contribution so I can think about the importance of this contribution.

"It's fair to recognize that the town of Williamstown at $2.75 million is far and away the largest contributor to this project. ... Even the tax credits are not a contribution. Those are investors."

The town has pledged $2.6 million from the proceeds of a federal Hazard Mitigation Grant and the above-mentioned $150,000 from the Affordable Housing Trust.

Tags: affordable housing,   Community Preservation Act,   CPA,   

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