A neighbor of the former Photech property expressed concern over building housing there because of the potential for another devastating flood.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Even as the town begins considering who should build subsidized housing on the former PhoTech mill property, the Affordable Housing Committee still was dealing with the question of whether anyone should.
On Thursday evening, the committee met to begin evaluating proposals from two developers to build either a 46-unit, three-story apartment house or 60 units in a "series of townhouse clusters."
In addition to meeting's main business, scoring the proposals, AHC Chairwoman Catherine Yamamoto read aloud a letter from Kevin Kennefick, whose family lives in the Cole Avenue home next door to the former mill site.
Kennefick submitted his thoughts in writing because he was not able to attend the meeting, and he presented the committee with three reasons why 330 Cole Ave. is not suited for the kinds of projects under consideration.
"I am not a 'not in my back yard' person and have always been in favor of development on the brownfield, until [Tropical Storm] Irene," Kennefick said.
He went on to argue that the kind of violent storm that wiped out the Spruces Mobile Home Park and flooded the PhoTech site downriver could happen again and likely would happen sooner rather than later due to global climate change.
"The 100-year flood plain is an out-of-date measurement," Kennefick wrote. "Don't put people of limited means back in harm's way. This alone makes the risk too high."
Kennefick's other two points questioned whether it makes sense to concentrate subsidized housing in one part of town and whether the three-story structure pitched by Berkshire Housing Development Corp. and the Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development is out of character with the existing residential neighborhood.
All three concerns resonated with the committee, although it was not immediately apparent that the panel had any desire to slow a process that has been under way for years.
"Thank you, Kevin, for writing to us and sharing your thoughts and making your position public," Yamamoto said, speaking directly to the public access television camera. "We have great respect for that."
Kennefick's third point, the damage to the existing neighborhood, likely will come up when the committee sits down with the two developers. Construction in keeping with the character of the surroundings was a concern expressed at public listening sessions the committee held while developing requests for proposals for both 330 Cole Ave. and 59 Water St., the old town garage site.
"I thought it was up too close, when I looked at it, that it was crunched against Mill Street," committee member Craig Clemow said about a conceptual drawing of the BHDC plan. "There has to be a way to make that property not degrade the area but help raise it by how carefully we design it and make sure the comments of people living there are heard."
The notion of putting residents in harm's way for flooding struck a particular chord with the committee. The main focus of affordable housing efforts for 2 1/2 years has been finding a way to replace housing lost at the flood-prone Spruces property.
Charles Bonenti reminded his colleagues that the committee last October heard a presentation from the executive director of the Community Development Corp. of Southern Berkshire County about how housing can be constructed in a flood plain.
Timothy Geller at the time showed slides depicting a 30-unit development built on a flood plain in Stockbridge using piers to elevate the living quarters with parking underneath.
Kennefick's concern about concentrating affordable housing in one part of Williamstown also fell on sympathetic ears.
"If you drop a pin on the Photech property and do a 1-mile radius, what is the percentage of our affordable housing that is within that circle?" Kennefick wrote. "90 percent? 80? ... My neighborhood is the affordable housing in Williamstown. The town should help here and not choke us further."
Cheryl Shanks said she shares Kennefick's view that the town should not concentrate subsidized housing.
"If we have no choice, that's fine, but I don't think we should be in the position of creating some kind of ghetto," Shanks said. "It's something I find offensive, and I think a lot of people would find offensive, and I think a lot of people would find offensive.
"I think integrating people in the broader geographic community would be preferable."
Committee member Dylan Stafford, who lives in that part of town, said while diversifying the population is a goal, so is renovating the PhoTech site, where the remaining abandoned mill building, known as "the cube," already is a blight on the neighborhood.
"I don't think adding more affordable housing to this site would create a ghetto," Stafford said. "If done properly and managed properly, it could be good for the town."
The committee also noted that concurrent with the Cole Avenue proposal, it is weighing a proposal from Arch Street to develop affordable housing on Water Street, a move that would diversify that end of town.
And Yamamoto, Bonenti and Clemow each mentioned that the committee's options for developable land near town water and sewer are limited — in part due to opposition that met a proposal to build on undeveloped land off Stratton Road.
"A very vocal segment of the population demanded that we look at brown fields, and we had been looking at brown fields, but we were sidetracked by the issue of Lowry and the Spruces," Yamamoto said. "When that conversation subsided, we returned to looking at the brown fields, and, in the meantime, had to have them cleaned up."
In the end, Yamamoto reminded the group, it can only make a recommendation based on its evaluation of the development proposals.
"We as a group have to look at it through an affordable housing lens," she said. "The Selectmen, who ultimately make the decision, look at it through the lens of what's best for the town as a whole."
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