Planning Commission Debuts New Regional Sustainability Plan

By Joe DurwinPittsfield Correspondent
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BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns said the Sustainable Berkshires regional plan is nearing completion.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A three-year, half-million dollar countywide effort to develop an updated plan for promoting a stable and sustainable regional economy in the Berkshires has been completed. Now, public input is being sought as the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission prepares to make its final decisions on the plan.
At a public hearing at the Berkshire Athenaeum on Thursday, BRPC representatives took comments and questions on the "Sustainable Berkshires" plan, which outlines goals and strategies to inform the region's developmental planning in the coming decades. 
BRPC as an agency has no regulatory authority, and the plan is purely an advisory map of recommendations and proposed course of action, which a spectrum of community institutions may draw from as they see fit.
"The plan's intent is to provide a framework to guide public, private and nonprofit initiatives and investment in the region," said BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns, though he noted that state government has increasingly relied on such regional plans in planning its own spending.
Sustainable Berkshires was conceived to provide an in-depth analysis of the current state of the region and to evolve a vision for addressing community development in eight key areas: Economy, Climate and Energy, Housing and Neighborhoods, Land Use, Infrastructure Services, Conservation and Recreation, Local Food and Agriculture, and Historic Preservation.  
If approved by the commission, which consists of planning delegates from all 32 towns and cities in the county, the plan will replace a previous 2001 regional development plan.
Much of the context of the plan is dominated by underlying concerns about the future of the regional economy, particularly in light of ominous population and demographic projections for the area.  
For some time, planning authorities have identified a severe lack of young workers in a rapidly aging local population, a trend expected to accelerate over the coming years with continued retirements of the rest of the "Baby Boom" generation. Currently, the average age of a manufacturing worker in Berkshire County is 57, and concern is high that the region will not be able to attract, educate or retain a younger work force to fill the void.
"The impacts on our economy, on public and private services, and on housing needs and markets, are going to be profound over the next 20 to 30 years," said Karns.
BRPC Senior Planner Amy Kacala outlined an exhaustive process involved in the creating the new plan, from data gathering and continual meetings with a regional consortium of officials and organizations addressing all different aspects of the eight categories included in the plan. Sections on Agriculture as well as its Historical Preservation component. 
"A lot of thought went into each and every piece of this," said Kacala.
Several questions from the public sought answers about how realization of the concepts outlined in the extensive document would be pursued.
"The implementation, that's what I think is critical," said Peter Traub of Cheshire.
Kacala said the commission had worked closely with officials and players in the local economy in the development of the plan. Elements of it have already generated interest and seen some beginnings of implementation, as various local planning board members from the commission have taken information identified by the process back to their municipalities. BRPC will continue to work actively with other communities stakeholders as well as making annual assessment's of the relative progress of implementing its strategies throughout the county.
"This is not intended to be a plan that we simply stick on a shelf," said Karns, "This is something that multiple organizations throughout the region are picking up pieces of and moving forward with."
"There are elements of this plan that will touch all of us," said BRPC Chairperson Sheila Irvin, encouraging residents to make every effort to read over the plan and make comment through their local appointees to the commission.  Contact information for staff are available on the commission's website, along with a list of commission members,  and all input from hearings and correspondence will be reviewed prior to an upcoming decision, when it meets to review and potentially vote on the plan at its March 20 meeting.

Tags: BRPC,   planning,   Sustainable Berkshires,   

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