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Town officials are dismissing an idea to close Spring Street to provide outdoor seating areas for local restaurants after eateries indicated they weren't interested.

Williamstown Making No Plans for On-Street Dining

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After gathering input from residents and business owners, the town is making no plans to block off Spring Street to allow eateries to set up outdoor tables.
 
Town Manager Jason Hoch last month floated the idea of temporary closures during limited hours as a way to help local businesses recover from the closures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
For months, restaurants throughout the commonwealth were limited to take-out and delivery service only. Hoch in late May anticipated that when the commonwealth moved to Phase 2 of Gov. Charlie Baker's plan to reopen the economy, restaurants would be allowed outdoor but not indoor table service — a prediction that proved to be correct.
 
But the Select Board, which greeted Hoch's preliminary suggestion with enthusiastic support, incorrectly predicted the reaction of their constituents.
 
"There certainly has been a robust conversation via social media about this possibility," Select Board Chair Jane Patton said. "I have not gone through and done any kind of scientific examination, but it does sound as though the 'nay' voices significantly outnumber the, 'let's continue to research and look into it' [voices].
 
"We're making inquiries into various things that could be solutions. One thing I really have not heard significantly from is people on the street, whether it's restaurants, merchants. There have been a couple of very vocal folks, but not a lot that I can see from other people."
 
Hoch said the feedback he got from eateries on Spring Street fell into the "nay" category.
 
"I did have two businesses on the street that actually did reach out to me, and both were not interested at the time that we spoke," Hoch said. "I think, for now, that's totally fine. I think if things change, we're ready to work with people.
 
"In all fairness, everyone is reimagining their business and operation regularly because of the changes in guidance [from the state]. I think as we saw with the move to takeout. We saw some people at the start who said, ‘That's not for me,' and moved into it and were very happy."
 
As Hoch noted back when the idea of closures first was proposed, there is not a lot of sidewalk space on Spring Street if a downtown restaurant does want to set up outdoor tables. And even after the commonwealth again allows indoor dining, it will do so under the rule that tables must be at least 6 feet apart, so outdoor capacity might come in handy through the summer and early fall.
 
But right now that appears not to be something for which businesses or residents have an appetite.
 
The members of the board Monday indicated they still have hope that the idea of a temporary street closure could be tried if local restaurants think it could help.
 
"The initial conversation doesn't always happen the way you want it, but there are ways to make it happen if the merchants want it," Andy Hogeland said.
 
Jeffrey Thomas agreed, suggesting that a Zoom meeting of stakeholders could measure interest and work out any logistical details. Patton said that she has proposed a conversation with the Chamber of Commerce on the issue.
 
"There's a couple of hundred things going on, and if the folks who are on the street and impacted aren't the ones who are driving this, I'm not sure how much we should be forcing it," Patton said. "I'm surprised, honestly, to not be hearing from more people on the street."
 
Hoch concurred.
 
"We can make it a possibility," he said. "But … if the people we ostensibly are seeking to help aren't at the point yet where they see it as help, I don't want to say that I know how to run their business better they do. I'm happy to defer to their comfort level in operating their businesses as they see fit."
 
The Select Board Monday did take a step to help all restaurants in town that have the capacity to provide outdoor service. Hoch informed the board that the commonwealth's Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission created an emergency provision that temporarily eases the rules for outdoor service of drinks.
 
Rather than going through the usual extensive process for expanding a liquor license, businesses need only "to provide a plan for location of seating and signify acceptance of the patio guidelines which will apply," Hoch told the board.
 
The Select Board voted 5-0 to grant Hoch the authority to OK expanded licenses under the emergency provision.
 
The board Monday also exercised its power to set rates at the transfer station and to transfer a town-owned property to a developer of affordable housing. And that was not the only kind of power on the agenda.
 
For about seven years, the town has participated in the Berkshire Aggregation plan that allows numerous county communities to join forces and give residents greater buying power to negotiate lower rates for electricity.
 
On Monday, Hoch brought the Select Board and updated aggregation agreement that adds two features: a provision that allows individual residents to "opt in" to purchase greener electricity and an allowance for a supplement to be added someday if the participating towns choose to fund an energy manager.
 
Although there is no proposal currently to create the manager position, if enough participating communities adopt the updated language, such a role could be created. "This role would be to manage the contract (now loosely handled by staff of some of the larger communities in the group) and to develop energy efficiency programs across the communities," Hoch wrote in a note to the Select Board explaining the proposal. "Practically, because the incremental cost is so small, this would only be viable if multiple communities chose to do this in the future."
 
The board voted 5-0 to accept the amended agreement.
 
A request by National Grid to install a utility pole on Oblong Road generated no action by the board on Monday. Resident Paul Gitterman told the board that rather than removing some mature maple trees to create room for a new pole, the utility had agreed to install a "push pole" on his property to support an existing pole.
 
The members of the board thanked Gitterman for working with National Grid on a solution and decided to take no action on the request as it might be withdrawn given the "push pole" solution. But the discussion prompted Anne O'Connor to ask that the board be given a heads up whenever similar pole requests threaten existing flora.
 
"We get these pole requests all the time," O'Connor said. "It doesn't say anything about tree removal in that request, and tree removal seems like something that could conceivably be part of a National Grid request. The thought that I could have approved removal of an old growth maple tree with a routine approval horrifies me."
 
Hoch said that the town could request the supplemental information for future requests from the utility company.

Tags: outdoor seating,   restaurants,   

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Mount Greylock Interim Superintendent: Health Plays 'Highest Role' in Reopening Plan

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff

Amie Hane, chair of the school district's special Parent Advisory Council, addresses the School Committee on Thursday evening.
 
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Mount Greylock Regional School District officials Thursday sought to allay fears that the district's schools will reopen under any scenario where safety is not the first priority.
 
Interim Superintendent Robert Putnam walked the School Committee through the administration's planning process for the start of school in September during the body's Zoom-based meeting.
 
"First off, we want to make sure that medical and health play the highest role in our decisions," Putnam said. "We are committed to protecting anyone with comorbidities. We are committed to, basically, creating the conditions for and ensuring that there is social distancing that protects staff and students alike. We are committed to creating a norm of mask-wearing and hand-washing.
 
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