WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A local family farm is asking the Select Board to let Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation preserve a tract that is integral to the farm operation.
About 10 acres on Oblong Road in South Williamstown currently is under contract to be sold to a buyer interested in residential development on the parcel.
But the acreage in question has, since the 1980s, been conserved under Chapter 61 of Massachusetts General Law, which allows landowners to pay a reduced property tax bill to the town.
Before the current owner can sell the property for development, the town, by law, has the right of first refusal to buy the land at the negotiated price ($745,000) or assign that purchasing right to a qualified non-profit entity.
WRLF, which already manages more than 900 acres of open space in town, is asking for just such an assignment, a request that the operators of Sweet Brook Farm want the Select Board to grant.
"I am here tonight to ask you to consider supporting the request of Williamstown Rural Lands as they work to conserve this very important part of our farm," Sarah Lipinski told the board at its Monday meeting. "It is small, but it is a meaningful slice of land that has been farmed by my family for eight generations and, I hope, nine if my son's love for tractors and my daughter's love for cows enmesh into their lives as farming has for mine."
Lipinski operates the farm with her husband, Darryl, and they use the 10 acres in question for grazing their 25-head black Angus cattle herd.
Elisabeth Goodman, the attorney for the land's current owner, Beth Phelps, walked the Select Board through the town's legal options for addressing the pending land sale – either through inaction or intervention.
"If [an owner] puts the land in chapter protection, the town has the right to buy it," Goodman said. "Another option … is a charitable non-profit can be eligible for an assignment of the Board of Selectmen's right of purchase.
"What I can tell you is my client wants to sell the land. She's happy to enter into negotiations with Rural Lands, if that's feasible."
In answer to a question from the board, Goodman said part of the transaction, whichever way it goes, would be a repayment to the town of a portion of the taxes that would have been owed on the land during its Chapter 61 protection.
She also clarified that the purchase and sales agreement is written with the "right of first refusal" process in mind, and the waiting period for the town to mull its options will not cost Phelps the potential buyer.
WRLF Executive Director Robin Sears joined Lipinski at Monday's meeting. She said the non-profit is considering raising funds to facilitate the purchase and is close to a decision on whether that option is viable. If it is, WRLF would like the board to assign it the right of first refusal.
"We do believe that this property of 10 acres, which has 1,500 feet of frontage on Oblong Road … has tremendous scenic value and cultural value," Sears said. "And if it were developed, that scenic value would decrease considerably.
"It is part of a very large and historic farmland. … We are looking into engaging in conservation activities through restrictions on the other two parcels. So this is part of a larger project. We'd like to have it as part of our commitment to protecting the rural livelihoods, the rural look of Williamstown, and food security."
Lipinski said Sweet Brook Farm, which sells beef and boils about 1,200 gallons of maple syrup, is an important part of the local economy.
"Our farm is viable," she said. "It is active. It is growing against the declining trend of small farms across America. We believe it is an integral part of Williamstown's local food economy and Berkshire County's as a whole."
The Select Board took no action on the question on Monday but discussed future dates for a public hearing and a decision within the 120-day window initiated by Phelps' notification of the pending sale. Chair Hugh Daley compiled a list of questions from his fellow board members to pose to relevant town bodies, the Conservation Commission, Planning Board, Agricultural Commission and Board of Assessors, who, the Select Board hopes, can advise on the potential tax revenue impacts of either keeping the land undeveloped or allowing homes to be built there.
In other business on Monday, the board made appointments to fill some vacant seats on town committees, including three new appointments for two-year terms on the board of the Affordable Housing Trust. Former Affordable Housing Committee member Cheryl Shanks was named, along with Kayla Servin and Robin Malloy.
A fourth resident also applied, former Planning Board member Alex Carlisle. Andy Hogeland, who fills the Select Board's designated seat on the Affordable Housing Trust board, noted that Carlisle, if named, might have had to recuse himself from discussions of a potential housing project on Carlisle's land that might come before the trust in the next couple of years.
The Select Board deferred on decisions about reappointments to the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee. Daley said he wants first to conclude a conversation between the current DIRE Committee members and the board about the mission for the advisory group going forward. To that end, the Select Board discussed hosting a table to solicit public feedback on the question at the National Night Out event on Aug. 2 at the Spruces Park on Main Street (Route 2).
The board also acknowledged a written request from the union chapter representing employees of the town's Department of Public Works. The union is seeking a one-time allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds of $4,000 per employee to compensate personnel for their efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The employees of the Williamstown DPW provided full-time essential work during the entire duration of the pandemic, from 2020 through current time," the union's letter reads. "Due to the nature of the job, there were no options to work hybrid or remote as millions of people across the country were. … Most of us, while working for the town, contracted Covid [sic] at some point. Aside from the fact that many of us became very sick with Covid, employees were required to use accrued time off work due to quarantining guidelines and caused outside family members to also contract the virus."
The union's letter notes that one allowable use of ARPA funds is to, "provide premium pay to employees providing essential work during the COVID-19 public health emergency," and many municipalities have done so. Williamstown is eligible for more than $2 million from ARPA.
Daley said new Town Manager Bob Menicocci will study the request with town staff and come back to the Select Board for a discussion in executive session. Town counsel has advised the board that the conversation would be covered by the Open Meeting Law exception for discussions related to collective bargaining. Although the Select Board normally is not a party to collective bargaining discussions, it does have authority over ARPA money.
Editor's note: edited to clarify the WRLF is close to deciding whether it can purchase the land. An earlier version indicated it was close to having the funds.
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Williamstown Planners Still Split on Upzoning Proposals
By Stephen Dravis
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Menicocci brings an extensive resume in government service here in the commonwealth and in California where, most recently, he was the director of the Social Services Agency in Santa Clara County.
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