DALTON — Holding firm against accusations of class prejudice, a razor-thin majority of voters on Thursday blocked an initiative to convert the former Dalton High School into an affordable housing complex.
At a special town meeting, residents voted 135-127 to repeal a previously approved plan to turn the 80-plus year old building over to the Berkshire Housing Development Corp.
Heated emotions surfaced numerous times at the meeting, held in Wahconah Regional High School's auditorium, as project opponents sometimes jeered and shouted at supporters who branded them intolerant.
"This project is 33 apartments right in the middle of 32 abutting single homes, essentially doubling the occupancy, density and traffic in that small area," resident Shaun Cusson said. "I don't understand why having a negative reaction to that is surprising."
The proposal stemmed from a May 2015 annual town meeting vote that granted the Select Board authority to find an appropriate re-use for the building at 120 First St.
But when the affordable housing proposal started gathering steam, opponents began to gather signatures for a petition to repeal the measure, which ultimately forced Thursday's vote.
Opponents, who at one point chanted "tear it down," cited numerous concerns about the project. The development, they said, would cause a decrease in property values and an increase in crime in the neighborhood. They also cited the building's location within a flood plain and its generally dilapidated condition.
Offers on homes in the area had been withdrawn because of the proposed project, said Cusson, who took umbrage at attempts by town officials to paint the issue as a "dispute between the 'good' citizens of Dalton and, I suppose, whatever the opposite of a good citizen would be."
Project supporters held fast to their characterization of the opposition.
They said the project would, if anything, increase property values by ridding the neighborhood of a piece of blight. In addition, they suggested it was obviously in the interest of the proposed developer to repair the building's faults and that traffic would, in fact, be less than when the building had been a school.
Proponents thus concluded that opponents were driven by "fear and suspicion" of low-income people.
"That's labeling of low-income families as bad or undesirable," said Select Board Chairman John Bartels Jr. "This idea is a stereotype; it's a prejudice, and it's something that's unfair to everybody."
Resident Jennifer Gitlitz said the project would make Dalton a more "inclusive and welcoming community."
"Who might these low income people be?" she asked. "They might be waitresses working full-time at the Dalton Restaurant for minimum wage. They might be teachers on first-year salaries. Maybe she's a mother who just got divorced who needs to find a place to live on her own for the first time. They may be a laborer.
"Just because you're low income doesn't mean you're packing a gun," she said. "It doesn't mean you're dealing drugs and it doesn't mean you're going to drag the neighborhood down."
She added, "It could be any of us that ends up in a situation where we need low income housing. Let's stop demonizing these people; these are our neighbors, and who among us doesn't have someone in their family that needs low-income housing."
According to a 2013 Berkshire Regional Planning Commission study, 97 families or individuals were on the waiting list for affordable housing in Dalton.
The study also revealed the portion of town residents living below the poverty line has risen from 2 percent in 2000 to 8 percent in 2011. Five percent of Dalton's housing qualifies as "affordable," whereas the state recommends that communities try to crack 10 percent.
Thirty percent of Dalton's residents would have qualified to live in the development, according to Elton Ogden, president of the nonprofit development company.
Ogden had promised his organization would "do something everybody in this town can be proud of" and "the vast majority of people who would choose to live in your town are from the town."
"This is housing for everyone," Ogden said before the vote. "It's housing for working people, for people who have rent subsidies and for single people and elders."
In the end, voters weren't persuaded.
The town now is left to consider the fate of the building.
"We're in the middle of budget season," Bartels said after the vote, "so unless something catastrophic comes up I don't see that we're going to discuss [the building's future] anytime soon."
Two options remain, according to town officials: Tear it down — at a cost of between $700,000 and $1.3 million — or sell to the highest bidder.
"If I was a contractor, I wouldn't want to buy it," Bartels said.
The Select Board was in the midst of negotiating a purchase and sales agreement on the property with the Berkshire Housing Development Corp. before opponents submitted their petition.
Once former town high school, and later the middle school, the building was vacated by the Central Berkshire Regional School District in 1997 with the completion of the present Nessacus Regional Middle School on Fox Road. For several years following, Pittsfield Public Schools used the space while Reid Middle School underwent construction. The building has remained vacant ever since.
Plans to turn it into an assisted living facility; then a new location for the town library and historical commission; and then a senior center and senior housing facility fell apart in 2001, 2007 and 2013, respectively.
Bartels said the town has the funds to maintain the building in a fund earlier established for its maintenance until its fate is determined.