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The Selectmen and some members of the Planning Board try to clarify the focus of a grant they were largely unaware of.

Cheshire Walks Back Housing Grant

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
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CHESHIRE, Mass. — After a breakdown in communication over a BRPC-administered grant, the town and the planning group are back on the same page.
 
The Selectmen and some members of the Planning Board met with Thomas Matuszko of Berkshire Regional Planning Commission last Tuesday to settle a misunderstanding about a state housing grant BRPC was administering on behalf of the town that town leaders did not agree with.
 
"It seems against what we wanted to do," Selectwoman Carol Francesconi said. "I have concerns about BRPC. I feel like they are telling us what we are going to do." 
 
The grant could capture funding to research and craft bylaws that would address housing regulations in town. Included, among other items, were possibly changing minimum lot sizes and setback requirements to promote development, senior housing options, examining accessory dwelling units and reviewing bylaws pertaining to multifamily dwellings.
 
Matuszko said BRPC in no way was trying to steer the town into any action, however, was merely working from the recently completed Master Plan. He added that much of what BRPC built into the grant application was taken verbatim from the Master Plan.
 
 "We are not trying to force anything on the town of Cheshire our role is to provide technical assistance, so we thought we were following the process on the plan that was adopted by your board," he said. "We saw an opportunity that could provide resources to the town. Assistance for towns is few and far between."
 
Planning Board Chairwoman Donna DeFino said she, too, was surprised when she read about the grant and did not recall the application coming before the board in full detail.
 
Matuszko noted that the grant is new and BRPC had about four weeks to submit it. He said the grant did come before the Planning Board and was approved.
 
Planning Board member Peter Traub admitted that he may have been somewhat vague when he brought the application before the Planning Board.
 
"I feel a little responsible for this. This came up and I went to the Planning Board and provided a more general idea of what this is, but I thought it was something we could use," he said. "I think that was the disconnect however ... this is only the process to see if the community wants this or not."
 
(It is not clear when this vote was taken; according to minutes posted on the town website, Traub, the town's representative to the BRPC, in May referred to possible housing and zoning initiatives to be brought back to the board in June, but those minutes are not posted.)
 
Francesconi also cautioned Matuszko and said the Master Plan may not be the true north guide for the town because it only surveyed 10 percent of the population. She added that many residents, town officials, and employees are against these possible changes.
 
DeFino agreed and said she saw the Master Plan as more of a "wish list."
 
"It helps show where we would like to see the town go. Not every single item in the plan immediately be put into implementation," she said. "There would seem to be two or three steps but that is not what we are doing here. We are writing a grant for something that seems to not have a great deal of support in town."
 
DeFino went on and noted specific elements that seem counterintuitive in Cheshire. 
 
"People that come to Cheshire come here for very specific reasons and the reasons are not to replicate Pittsfield, Adams and North Adams," she said. "They come here for the lifestyle and larger lots and less congestion." 
 
She added that she was equally concerned with changing setbacks.
 
"I hate to sound like such a stickler but those set back are there for a reason and part of that reason is when someone drives up whatever road they aren't going to run right in your porch," she said. "The regulations aren't just to make houses look pretty."
 
Selectman and former Chairman of the Master Plan Committee Edmund St. John IV disagreed with Francesconi and DeFino and said the 10 percent surveyed was a good representation of the town and felt the Master Plan should be more of a working document.
 
"It was a decent response rate ... and it was put through a process and to my memory, no one objected to any of this in the public forums and I never got any feedback from the Planning Board," he said. "To say it's a wish list, it demeans the work that was put into this."
 
St. John said the problem may have been more of a timing issue because of the short period the grant could be submitted. He added that although there may be greater needs in town, he did not see a reason to turn away money.
 
DeFino said she did not want to waste money on something the town didn't support 
 
Matuszko agreed and said he does not want to waste anyone's time or money and agreed to hold better communication with the Planning Board and the Selectmen and work less directly from the Master Plan.
 
He admitted that BRPC may have "jumped the gun" because of the short time frame they were working with but asked how the town wanted BRPC to view the master plan going forward.
 
"How much credence do you want to put into this plan?" he asked. "Because I can tell you from experience a lot of these plans just sit on the shelf and towns don't do anything with them."
 
Francesconi said the BRPC's technical assistance is important to the town but did not want the master plan implementation rushed.
 
"We appreciate the help we just need to slow down a little bit and set priories," she said.
 
Before moving on, DeFino asked if there was a way to perhaps move the grant application in a different direction within the parameters of the grant. She noted specifically funds to craft marijuana bylaws and demolition was a much more immediate need in town.
 
Matuszko said because the grant is new it may be more specific but said he would communicate with the grantor and see if a sea change is possible.  
 
"We can certainly ask if there is a way to change it to whatever the town wants to do as much as we can we will try to do that," he said.

Tags: BRPC,   housing,   master plan,   zoning,   

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