PITTSFIELD, Mass. — In a small town like New Marlborough, it can be financially difficult to bring in specialized expertise and attorneys for land use questions.
Now the town's Planning Board is hoping to craft a right-to-farm bylaw to protect its farmers. Through state funding, the town can now lean on the expertise of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. New Marlborough is one of 25 towns in the Berkshires to receive help with planning issues through the District Local Technical Assistance program.
"The DLTA funding has been imperative for us to move forward with any kind of up to date planning," said James Mullen, a New Marlborough Planning Board member and a delegate to BRPC. "We could grope along and struggle without it. But with it, it certainly gives us confidence that we're taking appropriate steps to get it done right."
The program was held up this year and BRPC grew concerned that the program would be part of mid-year cuts to the state budget. The state spends $2.8 million on the program, giving the Berkshires about $200,000 of that, but has been perpetually at risk. For small towns in the Berkshires, that money is important.
For example, Clarksburg wants to update its zoning to guide the development of remaining available land. Adams looks to create a 40R Smart Growth Overlay District to promote mixed-use development in certain areas. Dalton wants expertise in reviewing a report on redevelopment plans for the old Dalton High School. All of those will now receive funding.
But, there are bigger issues, too. The Berkshire County Educational Task Force is using the program for help with technical issues as it works to develop a plan for the future of the county's high schools. The Rest of the River Committee used BRPC as a facilitator as the towns along the Housatonic River negotiate with General Electric related to the cleanup of the river.
"I was very pleased to see that there was a significant project to try to figure out the next steps in broadband and internet service. It is such an important thing," said Williamstown delegate Roger Bolton.
Other projects include updating the open space and recreation plan in Dalton; creation of a commercial outdoor recreation bylaw in Egremont; a 40R overlay in Great Barrington; open space and recreation plan in Hinsdale, development of strategies to combat blight in Hinsdale; 40R growth overlay in Lee; zoning revisions in Mount Washington; zoning revisions in North Adams; creation of a Brownfields mapping tool for Pittsfield; a housing market student in Pittsfield; development of options to address land being taken off of tax rolls in Sheffield; the creation of an agricultural overlay zone in Williamstown; funding a shared economic development planner in Lanesborough; the creation of an economic development district in Berkshire County; supporting the brownfields program; presenting towns options related to address legalization of recreational marijuana; and shared services among many south county towns.
"I think it is fantastic that you were able to address all of the applications," Mullens said.
BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns said staff roles in each of those efforts vary. BRPC typically helps with around 20 projects a year and was able to fit them all in this year with the help of additional funds from elsewhere — such as a Regionalization and Efficiency Grant Lt. Karyn Polito announced for Lanesborough to help with the shared economic planner — or BRPC's role became smaller than anticipated.
"Some of it was there were other ways to skin the cat or the cat got smaller," Karns said.
Mullen said the demand for expertise is "validation" for the program. The hope for BRPC is that the program is funded in the future as well, and at the full amount.
In other business, the state Department of Transportation is once again looking for input on its five-year capital planning. In late 2015, the state held a meeting in Pittsfield asking for input but upset many when it stifled conversation and instead ushered those who attended into providing comments on computers. As of now, the state has launched an online way to submit comments and is expected to hold public hearings later.
"This is a mechanism to push local priorities for state aid and federal eligible projects and try to get them funded," Karns said.
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