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Dante Birch talks with a resident outside the polling place at Williamstown Elementary School on Tuesday morning.

Dante Birch Elected to Williamstown Planning Board

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
Updated 05:57AMPrint Story | Email Story
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 2016 Waubeeka overlay proposal was a product of the Planning Board.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Dante Birch earned a seat on the Planning Board on Tuesday with a solid majority in the annual town election.
Birch defeated incumbent and current board Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz by a margin of 608-343 in balloting at Williamstown Elementary School.
In the campaign, Birch said he wanted to see the board be more responsive to all residents after three highly charged zoning bylaw debates in the last four years.
It started in 2016, when the Planning Board's proposal discussion of an overlay district to allow resort development at Waubeeka Golf Links; ultimately, the board voted 3-2 against recommending passage of the district, which went to town voters via citizens petition and passed by 10-vote margin at town meeting. Last year, the Planning Board spent months developing a comprehensive overhaul of the town's residential zoning only to pull the proposal before town meeting in the face of heavy opposition.
This year, the board has two bylaw amendments on the town meeting warrant related to accessory dwelling units. Birch is one of several residents who have consistently challenged the board throughout the process and has has announced that he plans to propose an amendment to the bylaw regarding detached ADUs from the floor of next Tuesday's town meeting.
On election night, Birch took a break from chatting with well-wishers in the school's gymnasium to talk about the campaign.
"I've learned so much through this process," he said. "I've learned so much from talking to people in the community, and I'm just really ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work.
"I was really touched because everyone was really receptive, and I was just really impressed by how interested our community is. There's a lot of people with a lot of great ideas, and I'm just looking forward to getting on the board and getting to work."
Jeschawitz on Tuesday night said that while the vote could be seen as a precursor for next week's town meeting, she hopes that a full conversation about the ADU bylaws at the meeting will convince enough voters to clear the two-thirds "supermajority" needed to pass both amendments.
"I believe there is still a lot of misinformation out there, and there are folks who don't fully understand the warrant articles and don't fully understand the amendment that Dante Birch plans to make," she said. "The people in the room who come to town meeting, hopefully, will have an opportunity to get a better understanding when the Planning Board has a chance to explain those articles."
Jeschawitz said she plans to continue her own civic engagement after her term on the board runs out at the May 21 annual town meeting. That includes her work on the Linear Park restoration initiative.
And while she recognized that the Planning Board has been a lightning rod the last few years, Jeschawitz did not have any regrets.
"As I've said all through the past couple of weeks, I'm proud of the work that the Planning Board has done," she said. "We have challenged the community to talk about issues that have been in the studies, on the books, in the research that's been done for almost 20 years.
"When you bring up topics that are somewhat — I don't like to use the word ‘controversial,' but for want of a better word — people don't like change very much. Have I pushed those buttons? Sure I have. But, again, I'm proud of it. It's what this community needs to talk about and what we need to do. I hope the board continues to do that going forward."
The one five-year seat on the Planning Board was the only contested election on Tuesday. Nine hundred, fifty-three ballots were cast, including two blank ballots — a 36 percent increase over turnout in the 2018 town election, when four candidates were running for two Planning Board seats.
In addition to the contested race, voters Tuesday returned two incumbents, Jeffrey Thomas and Jane Patton, to the Select Board and filled seats for Milne Library Trustees, re-elected Town Moderator Adam Filson and returned David Westall as a town representative on the Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School District (McCann Tech) Committee.
The annual town meeting is Tuesday, May 21, at 7 p.m. in the Williamstown Elementary school gymnasium.

Tags: election 2019,   town elections,   

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Williams College Senior Senior Receives Luce Scholars Fellowship

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williams College senior Summer-Solstice Thomas has been named a Luce Scholar by the Henry Luce Foundation for the 2020–21 academic year.

Each year, between 15 and 18 college seniors, graduate students, and young professionals are chosen for this recognition, which provides funding, language training, and professional placement for college seniors and young professionals interested in working in Asian countries. Approximately 70 colleges and universities nominate candidates with limited experience in Asia or who might not otherwise have an opportunity to work in Asia. Luce Scholars can possess an academic background in any field besides Asian studies.

Thomas, an environmental studies major from Santa Cruz, Calif., is interested in studying how toxic industrial chemicals enter and interact with the environment to affect public health disproportionately across axes of race, socio-economic status and geography. Her undergraduate thesis, which will result in two forthcoming papers, analyzed patterns of PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyl, pollution across the Housatonic River floodplain to better inform cleanup of the carcinogenic material.

As a Luce Scholar, she plans to focus her research on environmental injustice, specifically through collaborations with grassroots organizations, to understand how power manifests across landscape to perpetuate inequality and illuminate how systems of privilege can be shifted to provide for a more healthy, just, and equitable world.

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