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The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission listen to the CEDS presentation Thursday night in Pittsfield. The strategic plan is required every five years by the federal government.

BRPC Hopes to Gain Louder Voice for Rural Communities

By Jeff SnoonianiBerkshires Correspondent
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BRPC Executive Director Tom Matuszko, lefft, and commission Chairman Kyle Hanlon at last week's meeting.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — For the last two years, Thomas Matuszko, the executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, has been intermittently traveling the commonwealth listening to concerns of citizens living in rural areas along with his colleagues from the Rural Policy Advisory Commission. 
The entity was created by the state Legislature to "enhance the economic vitality of rural communities" and put together a master plan. What the RPAC ultimately wants is a voice in the State House.
"There isn't any centralized department or agency in state government that is really dealing with issues of rural communities. There's no centralized way that somebody is looking at this on a consistent basis," Matuszko told the BRPC on Thursday. "So we are recommending that there be an Office of Rural Policy that can help provide this focus and this leadership on rural issues." 
Rural areas are defined by a population density of less than 500 people per square mile and face a wholly unique set of challenges compared to that of the Metro Boston area. Declining and aging populations, education and health-care shortfalls, and unequitable state funding mechanisms are just a few of the challenges the RPAC has identified. 
Matuszko pointed out one unexpected finding the commission discovered in the course of its research.
"In Berkshire County 54 percent of someone's income is spent on housing and transportation. We don't have mass transit out here. We have distances that are fairly large that need a lot of driving. Our transportation costs are really high even though our housing costs are low," he said. "When you compare that with Suffolk County, that's a pretty urban area around Boston, they're only spending 38 percent of their income on housing and transportation. It's a real difference in how people spend their money. What they need to spend their money on."
Even with median home sale prices in Berkshire County at about $214,000 compared to about $600,000 for Suffolk County, residents are still paying a much heftier percentage of their income to merely pay for housing and transportation.
The RPAC found education and health care, a huge strength in other parts of the state, severely lacking in rural areas. Matuszko spoke specifically to the Berkshires.
"The challenges that we find related to some of the demographic changes and the declining enrollments in our high schools are problematic in terms of offering class choice for a lot of our schools. This is not necessarily uniform, we have some high performing schools, but there are school enrollment declines that are dramatic ... in Berkshire County," he said. "And if you've tried to find a primary care physician in Berkshire County, it is very hard to do that."
As a result of a declining and aging populace, rural towns see less revenue through property taxes and are unable to staff town halls to deal with the financial shortcoming properly. 
"Financial resources and staff capacity is not [sufficient] in many of our small towns across the state," Matuszko said.
Despite all these problems Matuszko believes rural areas can benefit the state by solving some of its pressing issues.
"One of the important aspects that we found is that Massachusetts and the urban area around Boston is really facing a crisis in terms of housing prices and land availability to accommodate an increasing population. Within a relatively short time period, the population of the Boston area is projected to grow significantly. I think it's by about 30 percent. Where are those people going to go?" he asked. "Our assets could solve a statewide problem in terms of housing and land. Quality of life really is a strong asset that will draw people to rural areas."
The commission wants to review and revise the important allocation formulas used for funding education and infrastructure in the state as well by implementing a "Rural Factor." The funding formulas are based mostly off of population and enrollment. They don't take into account travel costs for large regional school districts, seasonal population swells, or the lack of mass transit.
"We have a lot of road miles in [Berkshire County] and not a lot of population so that formula may not be adequate," Matuszko said.     
 He outlined where the now completed, first of its kind, plan will go from here.
 "The next step is to really advocate for some of the legislation that is being proposed and we can do that as a group. We can come up with a legislative agenda that is important for us," he said.
 The RPAC meetings are open to the public and will be on the BRPC calendar on its website.
Senior Planner Laura Brennan also presented the commission with an update on the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) update for Berkshire County. The report is required by the federal Economic Development Authority. It is done every five years and is updated annually. The report focuses on demographics, infrastructure, economic development efforts, and other regional concerns.
Perhaps most importantly it recognizes key development projects throughout the county and identifies funding vehicles for them. Inclusion in this report is actually necessary to be eligible for those funds.
Brennan provided a list of some of those projects that include: The Greylock Glen and Blackinton Mill in North County, Berkshire Mall reuse and new Pittsfield police station in Central Berkshire, and the Great Barrington fairgrounds and Eagle Mill in South County. Plus countywide projects like Broadband For All and the brownfields program.
One high-profile project that benefitted from CEDS in the past was the Linde Center of Music and Learning at Tanglewood in Lenox.
The CEDS plan update was unanimously approved by the commission.

Tags: BRPC,   CEDS,   rural policy,   

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Pittsfield Panel Continues Marijuana Zoning Restriction Decision

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff

The Community Development Board is considering a zoning amendment that would eliminate outdoor marijuana growing from residential neighborhoods. 
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Community Development Board continued a hearing giving it more time to consider a zoning amendment that would essentially eliminate outdoor marijuana cultivation in residential neighborhoods.
The board heard from City Planner CJ Hoss on Tuesday who spelled out different outdoor cultivation zoning scenarios and the board agreed to hold off on a decision allowing members to digest the information they heard for the first time that night.
"Then we can look at even more scenarios, look at different impacts, and see how this can be resolved," Chairwoman Sheila Irvin said. 
The proposed change comes from a petition sponsored by the City Council and Hoss went through a series of maps and scenarios that showed where cultivation would be eliminated with different minimum lot sizes, different set backs, and elimination from specific zones.
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