PITTSFIELD, Mass. — This is the 50th year Berkshire Regional Planning Commission has been in existence.
On Thursday, Executive Director Nathaniel Karns honored the anniversary by providing highlights from the first 25 years, showing where the commission had been on the frontline with major issues.
The commission formed in 1966 and, a year later, Karl Hekler was hired as executive director, a position he'd keep for those first 25 years. The first issue facing the commission was plans for an interstate Route 7 highway cutting from Connecticut to Pittsfield.
"That was an era of large highways being built without community input or environmental concerns," Karns said.
The state's Department of Public Works — now known as the Department of Transportation — was in the midst of crafting plans for the major bypass known as "Super 7." BRPC got heavily involved in the planning process then, speaking on behalf of the communities.
The plan was never completed but pieces of that project can be seen today, including the so-called "Lenox bypass," a section of highway on Route 7 on the southern end of Sheffield, and in New Milford, Conn., where the interstate ends abruptly. BRPC's involvement of the project, however, would linger all the way up to 2010.
The following year, a project many today would recognize took up time with the BRPC.
"We were involved in the 1968 Saddleball development, which is now the Greylock Glen," Karns said.
In 1969, Charles Kusik of Richmond joined the staff as a consultant. Kusik is credited with bringing zoning to the cities and towns in the county. Even today some of the zoning regulations in some towns can be credited to Kusik.
"He was given the citizen planner of the year award," Karns said.
BRPC annually gives out an award in Kusik's honor to people in the county who are dedicated to planning efforts. Many towns in Berkshire County would never have had zoning regulations had it not been for Kusik.
In the early '70s, BRPC was heavily involved in water and sewer plans. Cities and towns were trying to get away from dumping sewer into rivers and the levels of water quality were a growing concern. Out of BRPC's efforts came the formation of the Hoosic Water Quality District, which is a join operation for Williamstown and North Adams to run a sewage treatment plant.
In 1971, BRPC completed the county's first regional water supply and sewerage plan, the first South Berkshire solid waste management plan, and the first Berkshire open space and recreation plan.
Also in 1971, planning commission was the driving force behind the creation of the Berkshire Housing Development Corp., which has been behind a number of housing developments in the county.
"BRPC was an instrumental piece of the development of the Berkshire Housing Development Corp.," Karns said. "Some have said it would never have happened if it weren't for BRPC."
What BRPC is now most known for didn't come to fruition until 1972. That's when a memorandum of agreement was reached between the organization and the state Department of Public Works establishing a regional transportation plan. BRPC became heavily involved in the transportation planning realm, which has remained one of the organization's contributions.
In 1973, Charlie Cook was hired as the organization's first transportation planner. That was a temporary job assigned to last only until the bypass project was under construction.
"It turned into a lifetime job for him," Karns said.
The following year the first environmental impact statement for the Pittsfield bypass project was initiated by the state after BRPC's advocated for it.
In 1978, BRPC dove into another controversial project. U.S. Rep. Silvio Conte had his hands on what would have been the biggest grant to the city ever for the construction of a shopping mall. The land where the McKay Street garage is currently located was eyed to host the retail mecca. BRPC performed "extensive" analysis and ultimately supported the project.
But, it was an election year and downtown merchants fought the project — the same downtown merchants who just 15 years later would be out of business anyway. Charlie Smith won the corner office and killed the project.
"It was ready to go to construction if that didn't happen," Karns said.
The early '80s is when the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority was instituted and, being in charge of transportation planning for the county, that added to the efforts the commission was focused on. Also in the 1980s, BRPC released the first analysis of the state of the regional economy; adopted a Berkshire County Energy Plan — a reaction to the gas crisis of the late 1970s; and the first comprehensive transportation plan for the county.
In 1984, "the last of the 32 communities unanimously voted to join. That was Tyringham," Karns said. "We started off with 10 towns and cities and 18 years later, we had all 32."
In 1990, there was concern that an upswing of second homes being built would impact the Berkshires' landscape. The Berkshire County Commission and BRPC created the Berkshire Land Use Commission to consider regional land use planning efforts and broader authority of how land is used.
In November 1990, BRPC found itself in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court after filing an amicus brief arguing in favor of the town of Egremont's zoning. A developer planned a 700-unit housing project in town but it didn't fit the town's single zone bylaw. The developer took the town to court arguing that a single zone is invalid.
"Seven hundred units is a lot of development. Even in Pittsfield that would be a large development," Karns said. "For a town like Egremont, that would totally change the character."
BRPC's role in stepping in to help Egremont was successful with the court upholding the zoning bylaw.
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