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Some members of the Community Preservation Committee are questioning the use of preservation on a stone wall they feel is better served in the DPW budget.

Williamstown Community Preservation Committee Hears from Applicants

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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The historic First Church is seeking $8,608 to fix its foundation.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Harsh winter weather and warm summer days are on the minds of the Community Preservation Committee this year.

Of the eight projects applying for Community Preservation Act funding for fiscal 2018, three share the common theme of preserving historic sites damaged by the annual freeze-thaw cycle.

Two town entities are seeking the blessing of the CPC, which recommends funding for approval at May's annual town meeting. The Department of Public Works wants $46,000 to restore and protect a town-owned historic stone wall on River Street (Route 43), and the Conservation Commission, which cares for town-owned land at Stone Hill, wants $19,000 for the restoration of an icon that honors a resident scapegoated during war time.

Both the Stone Bench at Stone Hill and the Mount Hope Farm stone wall are in danger of deterioration because of exposure. And they're not the only town landmarks in the same situation.

"The same weather problems we've heard about with respect to the Stone Bench and stone wall also affected us," said Anne Skinner, speaking on behalf of the stewardship committee at First Congregational Church.

The church is applying for $8,608 in CPA funds to repair the stucco foundation of the church building, part of the inventory of historic assets of the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The church's and town's history are inexorably linked, Skinner reminded the CPC at its Wednesday meeting.

"The incorporation of the town included the specification that an orthodox minister be found," said Skinner, who noted that while the town celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003, that celebration was premature because the church was not founded — and the incorporation consummated — until 12 years later.

"Secular and religious activities were indivisible at that time. The town, for example, paid the minister's salary."

Even though contemporary views on the separation of church and state have evolved, there is plenty of precedent in Massachusetts for CPA funds to be granted to religious entities for the purpose of preserving historic structures, Skinner said.

The current church building on Main Street — erected in 1869 and rebuilt in 1914 — needs a little TLC to help it into its third century of operation.

"The base of the foundation, the bottom three feet, was stuccoed in 1914," Skinner's colleage, Keith Davis, told the CPC. "You can see a lot of the stucco, even where it looks in good shape, you can see where it's been separated. Broken stucco has fallen free from the stucco mesh."

The total cost to repair the stucco is nearly $13,000 — $4,300 of which is being put up by the church. It is asking the town to contribute about two thirds of the cost of the project.

CPA funds, generated by a surcharge on local property taxes with a small match from the commonwealth, can be used for three purposes: historic preservation, open space and recreation and affordable housing.

The Mount Hope Farm stone wall and First Congregational Church applications fall under the first category, historic preservation. The Stone Bench is a "two-fer," serving as a respite for hikers on the town-owned Stone HIll Trail and preserving a piece of town history.

Andrew Groff, the town conservation agent who serves the Conservation Commission, told the CPC that the bench honors a German-born professor of German language and literature at Williams College, George Moritz Wahl, who used to hike the trail and recite poetry to his students and community members at the site.

"During World War I, professor Wahl, due to his nationality, caught the ire of many members of the community," Groff said in a meeting telecast on the town's community access television station, WilliNet. "Only following his death during the 1920s did the town come to terms with how it treated professor Wahl.

"At the behest of a group of his friends and colleagues, in 1926 … a trustee of the college ordered the bench on what was then private land. It was later donated to the town and is now under the control of the Con Comm."

The stone wall application also deals with land that was private, originally part of the Prentice family's Mount Hope Farm. Williams College, which later owned the farm, donated five acres of it to the town for the construction of the Hopper Road Bridge, Public Works Director Tim Kaiser told the CPC.

While the bridge was rebuilt by the Department of Transportation last year, the commonwealth did not address the historic, non-functional stone wall. But the edifice needs work, Kaiser said.

"The wall is approximately 90 years old and pretty much original," he said. "The mortar is rotting, and the face stones are coming loose. Some stones have fallen off and more are about to. Water is entering the wall and freezing."

Kaiser is looking for $46,000 in CPA funds to hire a contractor to repair the wall. He intends to draw 8 percent of a $50,000 project budget from his regular DPW budget, according to his application.

That makes the Mount Hope stone wall application the largest before the CPC, which has for two years struggled with the question of how much austerity it needs to practice in a time of depleted reserves and dwindling state matches.

Although last week's meeting was intended to be informational for the committee, which is scheduled to actually deliberate on the proposals at its Jan. 17 gathering, there were indications that a few of the projects may face resistance.

Williamstown Theatre Festival is asking for $7,000 to digitize photos and documents.

Both Dan Gendron and Chairman Philip McKnight had pointed questions for Kaiser. The former, who represents the town's Finance Committee on the panel, said he thought the stone wall project — while preserving a town asset — was better kept in the regular DPW budget.

"From my perspective, this is a stretch for the DPW to budget," Kaiser answered. "Our core function is critical infrastructure, and this wall is not critical infrastructure. It's an important piece of the town's landscape that I think should be preserved, but it's not something that the DPW would normally fund. There are too many things we'd consider a higher priority — roads, culverts, bridges and the like."

McKnight reminded all of the applicants seeking funds for historic preservation that, by statute, they are required to document the historical significance of the items they wish to preserve. In the case of First Congregational Church, that is accomplished by the building's designation as historic by the commonwealth, but the other applicants need the blessing of the town's Historical Commission, scheduled to meet the afternoon of Jan. 17.

McKnight made a point of particularly reminding Kaiser of this step.

"I grant you that [the wall] is old, but I would have a hard time discovering that this is in any way historic or adds to an understanding of the history of the town," McKnight said. "The items we've approved in the past — the cart that brought hoses to fires is a clear example — added to that understanding. An old stone wall that is in disrepair is a different item, I think.

"When you come back in two weeks, I'd appreciate if your historical certification from [the Historical Commission] is as full and complete as possible — not just saying it's 90 years old and needs to be repaired. That's not sufficient enough to qualify."

The two "small ticket" items on the CPC's docket also come in the historic preservation category: a $7,700 request from the Williamstown Historical Museum to preserve and display artifacts and a $7,000 request from the Williamstown Theatre Festival to allow it to digitize its archival scrapbooks, photos and playbills dating back to the company's founding in 1955.

WTF Board Vice Chairwoman Barbara McLucas addressed head on the potential criticism that the high-profile summer theater program ought not come to the town looking for taxpayer money.

"We're an organization that runs eight plays a season, and we do have an annual budget of $4.5 million," McLucas said. "We projected a revenue of $4.574, and we've achieved about $60,000 shy of that. [2016] expenses were projected to be $4.57 million. We actually did better on expenses this year, knowing that ticket sales would not meet our goal. We came in just about $9,000 under our projection [on expenses].

"The budget process is tight. We don't spend money not tied to the productions we do."

McLucas noted the festival's place in the town's history and role as an economic driver for Williamstown's hotels and restaurants.

"There's a perception the theater is wealthy, but literally year to year it's tooth and nail," she said. "There isn't extra money to fund a one-time project. We don't have money available for something that doesn't generate revenue for us. This doesn't generate revenue for us. It just preserves the history of the theater."

Another local non-profit is seeking $38,070 in CPA funds to help it better serve the community and, potentially increase its revenue to keep it sustainable.

Sand Springs is requesting some $38,000 to make the facility handicapped accessible.

Geraldine Shen was back before the CPC seeking the money to fund upgrades at Sand Springs Pool, where she is the executive director. The recreation center is seeking money to make the facility, including its second floor, handicapped accessible.

In addition to helping the non-profit better serve the whole population, the use of the second floor at the pool house will allow for more year round programming and larger event space for summer parties — both potential revenue streams to keep the non-profit in the black, Shen told the CPC.

Sand Springs is one of four private entities seeking CPA funds among the eight applicants. On the town side, there is the Conservation Commission, DPW, Affordable Housing Trust and Spruces Land Use Committee.

The housing trust, which has been funded entirely by the CPA since it was created by town meeting, is looking for $25,000 this year — $15,000 in "non discretionary" funds the trustees can allocate as needed and $10,000 to pilot a rental assistance program.

The non-discretionary funds go to the purpose of the trust, which the commonwealth allows towns to create in order to have a body that is agile and can apply funds as needed without going through time-consuming and cumbersome budgeting processes.

The rental assistance program was inspired by Thomas Sheldon's conversations with the Rev. Courtney Randall, a colleague on the board of the non-profit Higher Ground.

"There are members of the community who make enough to be ineligible for affordable housing but not enough to survive more than a month-to-month existence," Sheldon said. "This proposal helps those who would otherwise slip through the cracks. They are living paycheck to paycheck."

The Spruces committee is seeking $45,123 (the second biggest "ask" after the DPW) to launch Phase 1 of what the committee envisions as a 10-phase plan over the next decade or more to turn the former mobile home park property on Main Street into a town park, Chairman Thomas Hyde told the committee.

Tags: CPA,   fiscal 2018,   historic preservation,   

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