Sunday April 21, 2013

Williamstown is managing to tie itself in knots concerning the future of the Lowry land on Stratton Road. A Special Town Meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday will be preceded by what must be the county’s first ever 7:25 p.m. meeting to determine the rules that apply to one of the articles at 7:30. Whatever is determined may go before voters again at the upcoming annual Town Meeting, and it is not even clear that the Conservation Commission must abide by town meeting votes in determining what can or cannot be done with land under conservation status.

What has become almost a footnote in this debate is the essence of the issue -- the future of the residents of The Spruces mobile home park and the town’s need for affordable housing. Williamstown surely likes to see itself as a progressive community concerned about the welfare of the poorest in their midst, but that image has been marred by the elitism and NIMBYism that have emerged in recent weeks.

While the Spruces is in Williamstown it is not necessarily of it, and a recent letter to the editor sardonically proposing the borders be changed to push the Spruces into North Adams as a solution to the current contretemps would probably be embraced by many in the Village Beautiful. The Spruces, built on the cheap in a flood plain, has always had flooding problems and was essentially drowned by Hurricane Irene, with the loss of 151 units of housing. There is no rebuilding there, and the town has an obligation to find a spot for suitable affordable housing for Spruces residents and others in need.

This Wednesday, voters will be asked to place the Lowry and Burbank properties permanently under the care of the Conservation Commission. They will also be asked, as an alternative, to transfer 101Ž2 acres of the Lowry Property from the commission to the Selectmen for affordable housing, with the remaining 20 acres to remain in the commission’s possession in perpetuity. The sprawling town is 89 percent open space, and the Lowry property is a minuscule percentage of that space.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has awarded Williamstown a $6.1 million hazard mitigation grant, which can be used to compensate the park owner, relocate Spruces residents and set the groundwork for development of the Lowry property by a developer of affordable housing. Alternative sites have been brought forward, most prominently the Photech site on Cole Avenue, but it lies in part on a floodplain and contains residual contamination.

The argument that Williamstown should never touch its open lands discounts the reality that communities must be able to react to events, and the flooding of the Spruces is one of those events. While unsuitable for housing, the 140 acres of Spruces land could be of great value to the town as easily accessible agricultural land and/or recreational space. Arguments about the need to protect views and hayfields on the Lowry property ring hollow given that Williamstown will still have plenty of both should it part with those 101Ž2 acres. The weakness of the case made against this use of the Lowry land lays bare some not-in-my-backyard elitism.

It is regrettable that the Selectmen scheduled the 7:25 meeting to propose adoption of a provision of state law enabling the voting requirement for approval of the transfer of the Lowry property to be reduced from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority. Rightly or wrongly, this creates the perception that the Selectmen are attempting to change the rules minutes before a town vote to assure passage of an article they support that could lose otherwise. While this will anger residents, it doesn’t alter the reality that this is a sound plan to address the needs of Spruces residents and Williamstown’s responsibility to them and others who need low income housing. We urge residents to vote to put people first -- and even if this vote should be followed by others, the town should keep working toward this solution.