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School and local officials break ceremonial ground in October for the $65 million Mount Greylock Regional school project.

Williamstown 2016: Construction and Contention

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Accord beat acrimony in our annual roundup of Williamstown's top stories.
 
But just barely.
 
In many respects, it was a tumultuous year for the administration of the town's public schools, but the school system also was the scene of an agreement that will have an impact the region for decades to come.
 
Top story: Mount Greylock Add/Reno Project
 
After years of trial and error, the Mount Greylock Regional School District embarked on an addition/renovation project that will preserve the junior-senior high school's gymnasium, auditorium and mechanicals and overhaul or replace pretty much everything else.
 
The $64.8 million project received the final OK in March when Williamstown's Lanesborogh partners in the regional school district passed a bond issue by a margin of 633-499 (56 percent).
 
That vote not only gave the greenlight to the building project, it essentially put an end to talk of breaking up the two-town district. For the next 29 years, Lanesborough is committed to paying its share of the building bond, which makes it highly unlikely anyone will flirt with the idea of breaking up the region in the foreseeable future.
 
After the vote, things moved quickly, with major moves in the existing academic building over the summer, a ceremonial ground-breaking on Columbus Day weekend, and the laying of a concrete foundation for a three-story academic wing this fall.
 
Along the way, district officials got some good news when its bond was sold with an effective interest rate of less than 3 percent, and more good news when the construction manager was able to do the foundation work ahead of schedule in an effort to maintain the district's ambitious time frame for completing the project.
 
By the spring of the 2017-18 academic year, school officials hope to move Mount Greylock's classes into the new academic wing.
 
2. Waubeeka Overlay District
 
Just down the hill from Mount Greylock, Waubeeka Golf Links was a center of controversy in the winter and spring of 2016 as its owner, Michael Deep, attempted to create a regulatory framework that would allow a hotel to be built at the site to help prop up the struggling golf business.
 

Secretary for Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash, left, and Waubeeka owner Michael Deep tour the golf course in July.
Concerned residents argued that the town should not allow Deep to proceed because the hotel he was envisioning was too big and would be out of place in the area, because there was no market study that showed a hotel could be successful and because the project should not be allowed without more assurances that the rest of the Waubeeka property would go into a conservation restriction.
 
The battle began before the town's Planning Board, and, after the board decided to table the issue for want of more information, ended at Annual Town Meeting, where the narrowest of margins gave a two-thirds "super majority" to the Waubeeka Overlay District By-Law, which was introduced to the voters by citizen's petition.
 
On the floor of town meeting, criticisms were repeated, including specific legal challenges to the the by-law as written. Those same criticisms were repeated to the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, which took several months longer than usual before finally approving the bylaw in the fall.
 
Deep says he already has a consultant lined up to do a full-scale market study, and with that in hand, he hopes to start shopping the project to potential hotel partners in the spring.
 
3. Side-by-Side Controversy
 
"It's the first time I've ever received a complaint letter with footnotes," remarked Town Manager Jason Hoch on the storm that erupted when the administration at Williamstown Elementary School decided to cut a full-day classroom from its special education preschool program, known as Side-by-Side, which also allows in a limited number of tuitioned children.
 
For months, School Committee meetings were dominated by comments from the floor about the program, and the issue spilled over heavily into the deliberations of the town Finance Committee and May's town election (Story 5).
 
The issue also came to the floor of town meeting, where a protest amendment succeeded in cutting the school appropriation by $27 — one dollar for each year of the special education program's operation.
 
Although the program continues with its half-day sessions, the need for a full-day classroom has been trumpeted for months by critics of the decision, who continued to raise the issue at School Committee meetings well into the fall and likely will raise it again when the fiscal 2018 budget discussions get under way after the first of the year.
 
4. Tri-District Superintendent Leaves
 

Superintendent Douglas Dias parted ways with the tri-district in November.
Four of the town's top five stories relate directly to education, and three of them were far from rosy.
 
The cherry on top came on the night before the November election, when a special closed-door meeting of the school committees from Williamstown Elementary, Mount Greylock and Lanesborough Elementary produced the abrupt departure of Superintendent Douglas Dias, who was embarking on his second year at the helm of the "Tri-District."
 
Subsequently, documents made available to the public indicated that administrators in the three schools had serious concerns about Dias' job performance. Those, added to previously released evaluations from two members of the Mount Greylock School Committee, paint a picture of poor communication both within the schools and with the broader community.
 
5. Contention in Town Election
 
The generally civil and sometimes sleepy May election season took a different turn this year with contested races for Elementary School Committee and Planning Board.
 
Spurred Side-by-Side and Waubeeka controversies, respectively, both campaigns featured striking differences, and one took a decidedly ugly turn on the eve of the vote. In a move reminiscent of the kind of tactics usually reserved for presidential elections, one of the incumbents running for the Planning Board was accused of an Open Meeting Law violation on the Monday before the election.
 
The planner in question was not returned to the board, but the attorney general's office ultimately dismissed the violation complaint with barely a comment.
 
6. Highland Woods Opens, Closes, Opens
 
Arguably the biggest story of the decade in town, 2011's Tropical Storm Irene, ripples through two of the stories of 2016, starting with the christening of the Highland Woods senior apartments off Southworth Street.
 
The 40-unit complex was conceived to serve as part of the replacement housing for the 225 homes lost when Irene's flooding started the ball rolling toward the Spruces' closure.
 
In February, Highland Woods' initial opening was dealt a setback when pipes burst just before residents were slated to start moving in. Shortly, half of the building was certified for occupancy, but half remained offline for about five months while renovations were performed.
 
Finally, this summer, all the apartments were ready for occupancy, and in October, the complex was dedicated and Higher Ground, the non-profit created to help aid the displaced residents of the mobile home park, disbanded.
 
7. Williams College Construction
 
Berkshire Housing Development Corp. was not the only one doing construction work in Williamstown in 2016 — not by a long shot.
 
Williams College continued a multi-year effort to transform its campus with two major construction projects: a new book store on Spring Street and a 77,000 square-foot science center off Walden Street.
 
The former and, by comparison, more modest project will be wrapped up in time for the start of the 2017-18 academic year. The Unified Science Center will be under construction until at least 2020.
 
7a. Clark Art Institute Construction
 
Although most of the public and many art patrons thought the Clark Art Institute wrapped up the transformation of its campus with the highly promoted opening of the Clark Center in 2014, it was not until fall of 2016 when the campus project actually culminated with the reopening of the Manton Research Center.
 
The Manton's renovation initially was planned to coincide with the restoration of the historic white marble museum building and the Tadao Ando-designed Clark Center. But restoration of the Brutalist-styled Manton proved more, well, brutal, than the museum imagined.
 
The Manton's galleries remained closed, and many of the Clark's academic programs and staff remained displaced until this year, when the red brick building was reopened.
 
8. A Photech Finish?
 
Highland Woods won't be the last affordable housing project built in Williamstown if its developers have their way. Pittsfield's Berkshire Housing and Boston's Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development, who partnered on Highland Woods, also were chosen in 2014 to develop a subsidized housing project at the former site of the Photech mill, 330 Cole Ave.
 
The developers put that project on the back-burner while they rushed to complete Highland Woods, but they ramped up their efforts for the family-oriented housing project in 2016. This fall, the developers wrapped sought and received approval of their plans from the town's Conservation Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals.
 
The two town committees approved the project unanimously, although there were strenuous objections raised by a community member at December's ZBA hearing.
 
The developers say they will submit their application for federal low-income housing tax credits in February now that they have town permitting in place. While they do not expect to have the same fast-track approval that cleared the way for Highland Woods, Berkshire Housing's Elton Ogden recently told the Board of Selectmen he is optimistic the 330 Cole Ave. project could be approved after in as few as two rounds of applications.
 
9. Main Street Hotel Proposed
 
If Waubeeka Golf Links succeeds in finding a developer for a resort hotel on the South Williamstown property, the new hotel could have some competition in the town center.
 
In December, the Zoning Board of Appeals heard an application from the owner of the town's Howard Johnson motel to build a three-story, high-end hotel on a different Main Street (Route 2) parcel.
 
After hearing considerable opposition to the hotel plan from nearby residents, the ZBA continued its hearing into January.
 
10. Spruces Transformation Under Way
 

Scott Moore, owner of Quality Traditional Painting, and David Girard pose with one of the lions they helped restore.
In February of this year, the last residents of the former Spruces mobile home park departed the grounds, which once was home to 225 home sites. The Spruces' closure came in the wake of a long-time flooding problem that culminated with Tropical Storm Irene five years ago.
 
Ultimately, the town took possession of the park under the terms of a Federal Emergency Management Agency Hazard Mitigation Grant, and the town created a committee charged with looking at how Williamstown might use the land.
 
In December, the Spruces Land Use Committee took a small but significant step forward when it applied to for Community Preservation Act funds to accomplish Phase 1 of the committee's plan to turn the Main Street parcel into a town park.
 
Earlier this year, the town's ownership of the land — which must be kept in a natural state, per FEMA regulations — led to two visible improvements: the restoration of the iconic lions that guard the park's entrance and the planting of trees along a drainage swale in the property's southwest corner. The latter action was a project of the Hoosic River Watershed Association, used CPA funds awarded at the May annual town meeting.

Tags: year in review,   

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