Williamstown: 2018 Year in Review
The waiting game was the biggest game in town as Village Beautiful residents saw their forbearance tested on many fronts.
The highest profile delays were related to the Mount Greylock Regional School's building project.
On at least two occasions in 2018, officials from Turner Construction assured district officials in public meetings that the construction management firm had "never not delivered" on a project.
That record was put to the test in Williamstown, where the district had to push back the timetable for occupying the school's new academic wing from April to August and then ended up delaying the September start of classes from Sept. 6 to Sept. 10.
By all accounts, teachers and students both were thrilled with the improvements at the middle-high school … but the construction delays continued.
Even though the school itself has been open for business since Sept. 10, the district still awaits use of its renovated auditorium.
To date, the school has had to hold two major public events — its Fall Festival of Shakespeare performance and fall Welcome Concert — off-campus, and it is making plans to hold rehearsals for the spring musical in the cafeteria.
The initial delay — from April to August — prompted the School Committee to hire a Boston law firm to protect the district's interests in the project. And in December, a clearly exasperated chair of the district's School Building Committee implored the Turner team to wrap up the auditorium phase of the $64 million project. "What else can you say at this point? Get it done," Mark Schiek told the contractor.
The building project was not the only cause of delays at Mount Greylock in the fall.
Extracurricular activities — at the middle-high school and the district's two elementary schools — were impacted by a work action by the district's unions, who expressed outrage at the bargaining position of the newly expanded district's Transition Committee during the process of aligning contracts at Mount Greylock, Williamstown Elementary and Lanesborough Elementary. Eventually, the teachers agreed to end the work action, but not until after a very public display of union personnel's displeasure at a committee meeting.
Meanwhile, the Transition Committee and, later, School Committee continues to make plans for the construction of a new office for the superintendent and central administration and the renovation of the school's athletic fields — both projects that are triggered by the building project but not supported by Massachusetts School Building Authority financing.
The former, the district office, was necessitated by the loss of office space in the former Mount Greylock school building. The latter, the fields, was prompted by Americans with Disabilities Act compliance concerns; by law, once the district makes a major investment in its property, it is obligated to make all its facilities compliant, and the current fields — with an outdated set of bleachers and press box accessed by stairs, for example — are not.
Mount Greylock plans to apply part of a $5 million capital gift from Williams College toward both the district office and fields.
While it waits for a new office, the district's central administration personnel wait and continue to work out of construction trailers on the Mount Greylock campus.
The main building project spurred what one official called "a political nightmare" this year when district officials grappled with the question of how to handle permitting fees from the Town of Williamstown. While those fees are normally paid by applicants at the start of a construction project, the town agreed to wait until the end of the project to collect its fees — in case the project was running over budget and the district needed to find savings.
This summer, with major construction winding down and expenditures running within project targets, the town reminded the district of its obligations, prompting weeks of conversation at Town Hall and the School Committee, with several residents and district officials arguing the district (whose bills are paid by Lanesborough and Williamstown) should not be on the hook for a bill to the town.
The partnership between Williamstown and Lanesborough at Mount Greylock dates back to the 1950s, but the two towns waited until November 2017 to fully regionalize the district as a K-12 region. The district was governed by a Transition Committee for the period from January to November 2018, and one of that committee's very first actions sparked a controversy of its own.
At its initial meeting in January, the Transition Committee voted to unilaterally raise the tuition rate charged to the district's three "sending" towns by 23 percent. The impact was particularly severe in New Ashford, which tuitions all its K-12 students — principally to Lanesborough Elementary and Mount Greylock.
After several meetings and a couple more votes by the Transition Committee, it backed off slightly, agreeing to a phased tuition hike over three years. But it still had to wait for an overflow crowd at New Ashford's annual town meeting to narrowly approve a school budget that reflected the first round of hikes.
Not all of Williamstown's waiting was related to the school district.
Verizon Wireless waited months to get a special permit to build a cell phone tower at the junction of Routes 7 and 2 on Cold Spring Road. The application drew heavy opposition from neighbors who started voicing their objections late last year. The Zoning Board of Appeals finally gave the project a green light in May.
But as of Dec. 21, the town was still waiting to hear from Verizon about a building permit that would be needed to exercise the special permit issued by the ZBA.
Another proposal that generated some — though not nearly as passionate — community opposition was a bid to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Main Street's Colonial Plaza. A divided Select Board ultimately voted to endorse the project to state officials. But entrepreneur Joshua Silver — who from Day 1 said his ultimate goal was to sell both medical and recreational marijuana at the site — waited until December for state licensing as the commonwealth slowly rolls out its regulations in response to the 2016 statewide vote to legalize pot.
Silver Therapeutics received a provisional license in mid-December but already was making progress on modifying the retail space in the plaza to accommodate its store.
The Planning Board last spring decided to wait on its initiative to reorganize the town's largest residential district after getting blowback from a number of concerned residents. After pulling its zoning bylaw amendment proposals from the 2018 annual town meeting, a newly constituted Planning Board spent the late spring developing strategies for more community outreach, eventually holding a series of twice-monthly listening sessions where two members of the five-person board made themselves available — generally at local eateries — during hours that town committees don't normally meet, like Saturday mornings.
Based on the feedback there and at its regular meetings, the board is developing a proposal for 2019's town meeting that would loosen the town's regulations around accessory dwelling units or second and third units on a residential property. The board's stated goal is to provide more flexibility for homeowners and, potentially, add to the town's housing stock in order to make living in town more affordable to a wider range of residents.
Meanwhile, there was a little progress in the town's years-long effort to address its shortage of "capital A" affordable Housing, or subsidized housing. Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity has received the permits it needs to break ground in spring 2019 on the first of two single-family homes it plans to build on town-owned land at the corner of Cole Avenue and Maple Street.
A much larger affordable housing project down the road at 330 Cole Ave., the former Photech property, continues to wait in line for state funding that will allow Berkshire Housing Development Corp. to add 41 moderate income housing units on that town-owned site.
At the other end of town, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation's pace for rebuilding the Water Street portion of Route 43 caused consternation for residents and led to the Select Board sending the state agency a letter suggesting that Mass DOT adjust its planning process for future projects.
Williams College, which has been on a building boom in recent years, opened the doors on the south portion of its new science center and demolished the former Bronfman Building. But the school hit a snag when it tried to tear down a historic home on Hoxsey Street that it needed to clear to accommodate the new unified science center. The town's Historical Commission in April voted to force Williams to wait six months and use the time to aggressively seek someone who would accept the building and move it, intact, from the property. Six months later, the building was demolished and the project continues.
At May's town meeting, voters approved bonding for a new police station on Simonds Road, and seemingly the next day, work was underway on the project. Significant progress has been made on the renovation and expansion at the former Turner House for veterans, and officials report that the Williamstown Police Department could be relocated from its cramped, outdated quarters at Town Hall by summer 2019.
A group of dedicated volunteers took on another project, the renovation of a portion of the town's Linear Park. An anonymous donation of $50,000 keyed the initiative, which will provide up-to-date play space and improved parking at the park off Water Street.
And another group of volunteers helped add a new attraction to Spring Street this fall when the Friends of Milne Public Library opened Chapter Two Books, a used book shop that the non-profit will operate to raise funds in support of the town's public library.
2018 saw the installation of two women at the helm of the town's two educational institutions.
Kimberley Grady, who had been serving as interim superintendent of the Mount Greylock Regional School District, was officially given the title of superintendent in April.
In March, a long wait for gender equity in the corner office at Williams College ended when Maud S. Mandel was named the 18th president of the liberal arts college. At her induction in September, Williamstown Select Board Chair Anne O'Connor noted that she, O'Connor, was at least the fourth woman to lead the town's select board, and she quipped that she was glad to see the college starting to catch up with the town.
Among the notable losses in the community in 2018 was the passing of longtime public servant Daniel Gendron and Williams College coaching legend Renzie Lamb.
And while there were plenty of local issues to motivate the citizenry, Williamstowners paid plenty of attention to national issues as well. At Mount Greylock, students joined teens nationwide in holding a walkout after February's tragic school shooting in the state of Florida. At the town's annual Fourth of July parade, protesters staged a silent protest on Spring Street. And in October, a rally at First Congregational Church supported efforts to sue the federal government for damages related to climate change.
Tags: year in review,
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