Voters plunge back into waterline frayWILLIAMSTOWN — Despite pleas from some residents for more study, the Selectmen last night set Thursday, Dec. 2, at 6:30 p.m. for a special town meeting to reconsider the vote on extending the town’s waterline to Mount Greylock Regional High School.
The action was mandated by a citizens’ petition signed by 560 residents, which termed the Nov. 9 meeting at the elementary school flawed because of an overflow crowd and debate that ran so late that many had to leave.
The petition required at least 200 signatures of registered voters to mandate another meeting, and Town Clerk Mary C. Kennedy certified 222 — stopping after getting well above the minimum.
The Selectmen decided, as expected, to move the Dec. 2 special town meeting to a larger venue, Mount Greylock Regional High School, at the petitioners’ request, to answer the overcrowding issue. Mount Greylock also has a larger parking lot than the elementary school. The earlier starting time — 6:30 instead of 7 — is also expected to help get all voters in before the meeting starts. The Nov. 9 meeting was delayed for 40 minutes as voters continued to arrive.
Daniel and Mary O’Connor of Hawthorne Road launched the petition drive for a new meeting. Daniel O’Connor, a retired Williams College philosophy professor, had moderated an informational meeting sponsored by the PTO at the elementary school the week before the vote.
“That evening, we got a lot of information and became really interested in the issue,” said Mary O’Connor, a retired elementary school teacher. “We went to town meeting and saw what a disaster it was as a meeting, without blaming the Selectmen or the moderator, but because it was such a large turnout — there was an overflow crowd.
She added, “The next morning, after the defeat, I had the feeling somebody had to do something, and it was clear we had to do it. I called Mary Kennedy to find out the procedure, and it just took off. It was very easy to get signatures. People wanted to sign. People sought us out for petition lists and took them around. The response was truly amazing, and that made us feel it was the right thing to do.”
The people she thinks will be most motivated to vote in favor of the waterline extension, she said, are young families who want a safe high school when their children attend and also don’t want their taxes to go to pay for water for the school.
At the last meeting, she said, “We certainly got a lot of young families, but also senior citizens and people who live here but that I’ve never met. We had people of all ages, quite a cross section.”
The school has been using bottled water for drinking and cooking since state Department of Environmental Protection testing last spring showed that the school’s well water is contaminated with perchlorate and is unsafe for consumption. Although the department has no set standards for perchlorate, it expects to issue draft regulations by the beginning of the year, and is still gathering data from the last quarter’s testing, said Eva Tor, DEP spokeswoman, this week.
An additional issue in the waterline debate is upcoming significant renovations of the 42-year-old school building that officials say will trigger the need for a sprinkler system and wells that conform to DEP regulations. The wells are now too close to the building.
The waterline proposal, which gained 463 votes to 253 against last week, narrowly failed to reach the required two-thirds majority to authorize the town to borrow $875,000 for the project. Local officials said the money would be repaid by water sales to the schools and to the institutional users that would have paid the lion’s share of the project’s cost — and still could, depending on the Dec. 2 vote.
The total project has been estimated at $3.4 million. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute would pay $1.5 million, with an additional $300,000 if needed; the Williamstown Art Conservation Center $350,000 and Northern Berkshire Health Systems $200,000. The total is about $175,000 short of the $3.4 million, but local officials have said the town would not pay more than the $875,000. The actual cost of the project would depend on the winning bid, after the contract proposal process.
The Clark, if town water became available, would buy property between Sweetwood and the high school for a building to house the conservation lab plus gallery and classroom space. Northern Berkshire Health Systems, which owns Sweetwood, could expand that retirement home by 68 units behind its building, land now off limits to development because wells are located there.
If the sale to the Clark does not go through, Sweetwood plans its 68 units for the parcel known as Phelps Knoll, according to NBHS President and CEO John C.J. Cronin. That project would likely be delayed at least a year.
The issue has been a contentious one, with some opponents warning that a waterline could open the floodgates to development along Cold Spring Road, the town’s scenic southern corridor, where, in fact, much land is under agricultural or conservation protection.
Another criticism of the Nov. 9 meeting was the lengthiness of some speakers’ remarks.
“For young families and physically challenged people it was a tremendous hardship,” Mary O’Connor said. “The starting point was the overcrowding. The meeting was so flawed because close to 1,000 people were trying to get in the building. Some went away because they couldn’t find a place to park. Some were out in the corridor. We have friends who are physically handicapped who had to leave because they were so uncomfortable. We heard about parents of young children whose high-school-age babysitters couldn’t stay out any later than 9 or 9:30.”
She stressed that it was the meeting itself, rather than the result it produced, that prompted the petition drive.
“We want a meeting that is truly democratic, that lets them get in and lets them hear,” she said.
She called circulating the petition “gratifying, because it confirms our feelings about the meeting. It’s been a rewarding and interesting experience. The petition gained 560 signatures. That says it all.”
O’Connor said because of the many requests for more information about the project, they plan to set up a table in the Milne Public Library, where both sides of the issue can be outlined.
“Each person who has a position is responsible for getting that information to the library,” she said.
She also hopes the map showing the proposed route and zoning along the corridor can be placed there on view.
“We also hope to activate the town Web site for people to exchange views and opinions.”