Conservation Commission Chairman Philip McKnight makes a point during Thursday's meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Conservation Commission on Thursday decided to hold public hearings later this summer to try to settle the issue of whether two town-owned sites in its control fall under Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution.
The parcels in question are known as the Lowry Property and Burbank Property.
Each is currently being farmed under use agreements signed by the Con Comm, but each also looked at in the last two years as possible places to develop affordable housing.
Conservation advocates and abutters to the properties advocated strongly that they were protected by Article 97 and subject to a lengthy, multi-step process that would have been required to take them out of conservation.
Ultimately, the question of whether to develop portions of either parcel was dropped when the Board of Selectmen voted not to ask to have it removed from conservation.
But the commissioners, recognizing that the question could come up again at a later date, decided to continue their analysis.
"With the Attorney General not showing any interest, we as a commission have the option to consider the Article 97 status," Chairman Philip McKnight told the panel on Thursday. "If we conclude the Article 97 status is appropriate, we can ask Town Counsel to create the appropriate document for land records for one or both properties."
McKnight said that while such a document would not be binding, it would be instructive to anyone looking at the property in the future.
When the Lowry property in particular was under consideration for development, McKnight indicated on a number of occasions that the question of its status ultimately could be determined in a court of law.
Commissioner Henry Art, who acted as a liaison between the Con Comm and the AG's office, said on Thursday that officials in Boston basically told the town that the issue was moot and it would not pursue a legal opinion on a hypothetical question.
Art did say that a representative from the AG's office told him that the two Williamstown properties are different from the land at issue in Mahajan vs. the Department of Environmental Protection
, the case on which Town Counsel based his 2013 decision saying Lowry might not be protected under Article 97.
The Con Comm agreed to take up the issue in public hearing on July 24 and continue to work on the question in August.
The commission settled several questions on Thursday in a series of short public hearings.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation was back before the panel to ask for an amended order of conditions in regard to the culvert replacement under Main Street (Route 2) near the Spruces Mobile Home Park.
The state originally planned to replace an inadequately sized culvert with a 60-inch pipe, but it found that size pipe would not work due to the presence of a gas main it was not aware of during initial design. Instead, the Con Comm approved the state's installation of three 36-inch pipes, which the DOT's District 1 designer told the panel would help even more the residents on the south side of Main Street who asked the town to do something about frequent flooding on their land.
The Con Comm also approved an addition on a property at 88 Woodlawn Drive and the installation of a ground-mounted solar photovoltaic system at 294 Blair Road.
The commission also heard an update on the status of a couple of its long-term projects: the creation of new hiking trails and the renovation of the bath house at Margaret Lindley Park.
Commissioner Richard Schlessinger told the Con Comm he was ready to start marking a new trails on Stone Hill, and McKnight said the commission is making progress at Margaret Lindley Park on an effort to reopen a loop trail that was disrupted by the loss of a bridge in a recent storm.
As for the bath house, the commission hopes to have it open in the next couple of weeks. It successfully has brought water back to the facility thanks to Community Preservation Act money that Town Meeting decided to allocate in 2013 for a new well at the park.
Thursday's meeting was the first attended by the commission's newest member, Sarah Foehl, whose term begins on July 1.
Her arrival on the commission signals the departure of Harold Brotzman, who has served on the Con Comm for 35 years.
"Think about that for a moment," McKnight said in recognizing Brotzman's service. "The wealth of knowledge and expertise about the enforcement and interpretations of statutes we're in charge of enforcing is staggering.
"To say we'll miss his guidance is an understatement, but we'll also miss his companionship."