PITTSFIELD, Mass. — When it comes to local planning efforts, nothing was more ambitious than the Sustainable Berkshires master plan.
The 800 or so page document was developed by stakeholders throughout the county as it looked to create a master plan for the entire county. After three years of work, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission adopted the full document in 2014.
That process revealed what planners at the time called "sobering" information that the trends in the county were unsustainable and it developed 352 strategies to turn the tides.
But a plan doesn't do much if it just sits on the shelve collecting dust and Sustainable Berkshires was particularly at risk of doing so because of its unwieldiness. Now five years since adoption, former BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns says a lot of it has taken hold.
"To our knowledge over half the strategies are being actively worked on and we have to consider that a real success," Karns said.
Karns may have retired last year but he's still around, sticking with a few projects he had going when he was the director. Sustainable Berkshires was one of those and he recently undertook an effort to find out the effectiveness of the massive planning process. He presented an update to the commission on Thursday.
The plan was broken into eight areas: conservation and recreation, economy, food and agriculture, climate and energy, housing and neighborhoods, historic preservation, infrastructure and services, and land use. Throughout all of those 80 goals, 137 policies, and 352 strategies were outlined.
"It was and is a very ambitious plan," Karns said.
He said 22 percent of the strategies have shown "solid progress" or were complete; 32 percent of the strategies were initiated or are in progress, and 46 percent have shown either no progress or are unknown to him. Most of those goals, policies, and strategies depended on people and organizations outside of BRPC so Karns expects those numbers to be conservative because BRPC may not be aware of something being worked on by another stakeholder.
"This was not the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's responsibility to take on all 352 strategies," Karns said.
In conservation and recreation, Karns reported that 35 percent of the strategies have shown solid progress or were completed. He noted the goal to increase partnerships across town borders.
"The Rest of River communities that are involved with the GE cleanup they've been actively working together, they continue to work together. They've been doing that for four or five years already," Karns said.
That was shortly followed by the issue of the pipeline in which eight towns joined together and then the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership which involves 21 towns.
"Partnerships across boundaries was a strategy in the plan and I think we've done it really well," Karns said.
He said creating a regional bike path has shown significant progress with nearly all of the towns either in design, in construction, or have a section of the trail in place. With Complete Streets, which increases such things as bicycle lanes, half of the county's towns have adopted programs.
However, Sustainable Berkshires called for increased use of the Community Preservation Act, which can earmark funds to conservation and recreation, but only six municipalities have adopted it, and most of the ones that have did it prior to the adoption of the plan. Karns said statewide half of the municipalities in Massachusetts have adopted it, far outpacing the Berkshires.
"We are either missing something or know something nobody else knows," Karns said.
Karns also said there has been a lack of funding from the state for open space. He said anybody who walks onto a local Department of Conservation and Recreational property can tell there is a lack of resources to properly manage the land. The plan hoped to rally support around the state increasing its funds but that hasn't happened.
Economically, 22 percent of the strategies have shown progress and 40 percent have been initiated. Karns highlighted a collaborative approach to education as an area that has shown progress.
Particularly, he cited the regionalization of Lanesborough, Williamstown, and Mount Greylock into one school district. Overall, the plan calls for school districts to work more collaboratively in order to provide more options for the students. Karns said the array of programs offered at high schools is significantly less than it had been in the past.
"It is not really about finances it is about the quality and breadth of education available, particularly at the secondary level," Karns said.
He highlighted broadband being expanded into every town. Yet, while Karns highlighted that more and more towns are now being connected, he also voiced concerned about the quality of internet connections in the economic centers. He said the push to expand broadband had brought "first-class" technology to Mount Washington, which was previously underserved, but in Pittsfield, old cable lines are still being used.
"It is an obsolete technology that is leaving our economy centers behind," Karns said.
He said with rail and freight there has been progress. The state crafted a new freight plan that Unistress helped with and a lot of focus was put on updating regulatory issues that had kept businesses from using rail.
Meanwhile, Karns highlighted a section of the Housatonic Rail line that is being refurbished. He said some 800 manufacturing jobs depend on that rail line that dates back to the 1920s.
He also highlighted the public transportation issues. While there hasn't been a solution put into place, there has recently been a collaborative effort from employers and others to find a viable solution for the county.
"We are starting to deal with the public transportation issues," Karns said.
Yet Karns said the county has yet to articulate a regional economic development strategy, lags behind on bolstering broadband in the economic centers, and still hasn't found a way to guide the younger population into having greater career aspirations.
"Our young male population really sticks out that way to me. It may just be an impression," Karns said.
Only two of the 15 strategies in food and agriculture have shown progress, but Karns said it was one area that BRPC had very little involvement in so there could be more.
However, the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership that plays a role in helping farmers become more sustainable is showing progress, towns have adopted right to farm bylaws, and local agricultural commissions are more active.
The key piece showing a lack of progress is the food infrastructure. The plan had called for slaughterhouses, a countywide food hub, and commercial kitchens, most of which haven't come to fruition. While there have been some attempts at opening commercial kitchens, Karns said the others have shown no progress.
"That food infrastructure piece is where we don't seem to be making much progress at this point," Karns said.
In the climate and energy sphere, 22 percent of the strategies have shown solid progress or were complete and another 25 percent have been initiated.
"Over half of our communities have adopted Green Communities," Karns said of notable progress.
He added that emergency planning has increased to ensure vulnerable populations are cared for during heat events or power outages. He highlighted the state's efforts with culverts and bridges which are further at risk because of climate change — the importance of which the town of Adams can recently attest.
Karns said some of the areas showing a lack of progress is actually identifying the vulnerable populations during such an emergency, a lack of progress with public transportation to reduce automobile use, and a lack of proactive identification of potential renewable energy sites.
In housing and neighborhoods, a category BRPC typically heavily involved in and therefore more easy to track, 24 percent of the strategies have shown solid progress or completed and 37 percent have been initiated.
"Age-friendly Berkshires and the Public Health Alliance are very active in these areas. They both have been very successful. They've done a lot of good work," Karns said.
He also highlighted towns like Lee, Great Barrington, and Pittsfield which have adopted 40R zoning, which was identified as a way to increase housing density in downtowns.
"It is useful in Lee, in any communities that have fairly dense centers even if it isn't very big," Karns said.
Karns has also noticed that organizations are being much more deliberate in reaching populations that have been historically under-represented.
"We have other elements of the population that tend to not be involved in public hearing, public meetings, they are under-resourced in one form or fashion, in some cases they aren't really wanting to come out of their houses too much," Karns said.
He said there are a lot of people in the community barely getting by or struggling through trauma and the plan called for a stronger effort to try to understand and reach out those members of the population.
"That's been something we certainly haven't completed, nor will it ever be completed, but it is something all of us ought to be sensitive to in our communities because they tend to be a hidden population," Karns said.
He also highlighted the efforts to develop a regional housing rehabilitation program, which BRPC has done. The county's housing stock is mostly built in the 1950s and a lot of repairs are needed. The regional program is hoped to help residents up the condition of the homes.
However, with housing and neighborhoods, the strategy to increase funding for public transportation has not shown much progress. Nor has efforts to curb public safety issues or increase workforce housing.
Historic preservation has shown little overall progress, according to Karns. He said only 11 percent of the strategies have shown solid progress and 15 percent being initiated. That leaves 74 percent of the strategies the plan outlined showing no progress.
"Historic preservation suffers from very weak financial support at local, state, and federal levels. The lack of activity here is really due to lack of resources," Karns said.
However, the Western Massachusetts Historic Commission is meeting regularly and six municipalities in the Berkshires did adopt the Community Preservation Act which sets aside money for historic preservation. However, the county has shown little progress in updated historic preservation surveys.
In infrastructure and services, 17 percent of the strategies have shown solid progress or are complete and another 57 percent have been initiated. Karns highlighted an increased level of planning for climate change taking place in communities, state education funding increases, the talks about revamping the county's public transportation system, the Berkshire County Education Task Force, and the last mile broadband efforts all as notable progress in these categories.
Yet, while the state has increased funding for schools it has yet to restructure the funding formula. The state's support for public transportation hasn't increased, local governments haven't been given many tools to collect revenue on its own other than marijuana tax, and emergency services such as ambulances haven't gotten the staffing support the plan outlined.
In land use, 20 percent of the strategies have shown solid progress and 27 percent has been initiated. Karns highlighted new master plans that were drafted and adopted in a number of Berkshire towns, that there have been more planning education and workshops for county and town planners, zoning reform talks have begun in the state Legislature to revise the 45-year0old regulations currently in place, and a few towns have adopted 40R zoning.
However, outdated zoning bylaws and subdivision regulations haven't been changed and more towns could adopt 40R. Sustainable Berkshires also called for the creation of a priority development and conservation plan with the state and an enhanced number of inter-municipal land use cooperation. For the latter, Karns highlighted Dalton and Pittsfield which shares a border and roads but don't work together to manage it.
Sustainable Berkshires remains the regional master plan and while it was a massive document which called for a lot, Karns is happy with the progress made so far.
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