Williamstown: 2017 Year In Review
The top story of 2017 undoubtedly was the expansion of the Mount Greylock Regional School District to include its two “feeder” elementary schools in Williamstown and Lanesborough.
Citing inefficiencies in the shared services arrangement that previously yoked the three schools and desiring to preserve the educational and financial benefits the towns have reaped from the cooperative agreements, school committees in the two towns asked voters to bring all three into the same region.
The idea had been talked about for years and was the subject of a 2013 yearlong study by Mount Greylock, which ultimately put the proposal on the back burner in order to concentrate on the addition/renovation project at the middle/high school.
In 2017, the Mount Greylock School Committee’s resurrected Regional District Amendment Committee recommended that the proposal be driven by the elementary school committees in the two towns.
Elementary school committee chairs Joe Bergeron in Williamstown and Regina DiLego in Lanesborough developed a plan that addressed the thorny issue of “local control” by breaking the standard mold for regional school funding. Instead of both towns paying for K-12 education based on student population, each town will pay its K-6 cost based on the budget for its respective elementary school -- while continuing to split the 7-12 price tag under the student-population formula already used at Mount Greylock.
In the end, the regionalization proposal passed with minimal opposition in Lanesborough and virtually no dissent in Williamstown at concurrent special town meetings.
As we ring in 2018, a Transition Committee that includes members from all three elected school committees is charged with making the merger work.
But it was not the only merger in town.
Village Ambulance Service, which started the year with dire warnings about its financial situation, ended the year by ending its existence and joining forces with neighboring North Adams Ambulance Service. Together, the combined operation will cover most of North Berkshire and avoid the feared financial collapse of the non-profit VAS.
A committee that included Williamstown, VAS, Williamstown Fire District and Williams College officials spent most of 2017 studying the problem and seeking the advice of an outside consultant. The task force decided that uniting with NAAS was the best possible solution for Village Ambulance, which was hampered by, among other things, a changing insurance market and the reality that smaller ambulance services nationwide are struggling to survive without economies of scale.
The town’s other first responders, after flirting with a different kind of merger -- at least in terms of infrastructure -- made moves in 2017 to find their own solutions to well-established building woes. The town acquired a Simonds Road [Route 7] property for a new Williamstown Police Department headquarters while the Williamstown Fire District, on its third try, acquired a Main Street [Route 2] parcel where it hopes to build a new firehouse.
The Fire District twice asked voters in 2013 to approve the purchase of the 3.7-acre Lehovec Property next to the Aubuchon Hardware store that opened in 2017. Twice, voters at special Fire District meetings favored the acquisition but not by the two-thirds supermajority needed to make it happen.
After the second failure, the town and Fire District -- a separate taxing authority outside of town government -- agreed to form a joint committee to look at a possible public safety building that could accommodate the town’s police and fire needs. Ultimately, that group decided in 2016 there was no suitable space.
In spring 2017, the town announced it had a purchase and sales agreement for the former Turner House on Simonds Road, and as soon as May’s 2018 annual town meeting, the town manager hopes to have a proposal for bonding the renovation and addition needed to turn the former veterans home into a police station.
The Prudential Committee, which governs the fire district, is taking its time with the process of developing plans for the hoped-for firehouse on Main Street, across from East Lawn Cemetery. In the meantime, the Fire Department is making do with its current digs on Water Street.
Speaking of Water Street, it was impacted by the latest construction project to hit Williamstown: the replacement of an underground culvert that carries Christmas Brook to the Green River, which runs along the eastern side of Water Street.
The larger culvert and a stormwater detention system being installed under the college-owned municipal parking lot on the bottom of Spring Street will help alleviate flooding that has plagued residents in the Meacham Street neighborhood.
The culvert is planned to be in place beneath Water Street before it undergoes a major rebuild under the auspices of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
The culvert replacement is an important piece of the reshaping of Williamstown’s downtown, an initiative led by Williams College and includes the new Williams Bookstore, which opened this year, and the new Williams Inn, which broke ground in the fall.
Of course, Williams is not the only one making news in the hotel business in Williamstown this year.
2017 began with two separate hotels being proposed for commercial lots on Main Street. Both needed special permits from the Zoning Board of Appeals, which permitted one developer to go forward and blocked the other.
The year ended with the permitted project already taking shape as a new Fairfield Inn by Marriott rises on the land that formerly was home to the Grand Union and, recently, Developers Finance.
And it ended with the ZBA at the center of yet another conflict, a proposed cell tower on Cold Spring Road that faced staunch opposition from some members of the community and a public hearing that was continued into 2018.
The ZBA was not the only town board that faced a thorny issue and carried consideration into the new year. The Select Board [which this fall voted to stop referring to itself as the Board of Selectmen] spent much of 2017 talking about the coming regulatory framework for recreational marijuana being worked out in Boston. In the meantime, the board has a pending request for support from a proposed medicinal marijuana dispensary whose developer is upfront about his plans to add non-medical pot when the commonwealth sets the rules.
Tags: year in review,
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