Tuesday, July 03
SHEFFIELD — Lush farmland, open space, meandering back roads with names like Bow Wow and Bull Hill, a close embrace of history and family values, and a river running through it — Sheffield retains its agricultural traditions with at least 24 farms of various sizes operating.

At the same time, despite rising property values, the town is making sure that young working families can continue to thrive and to find work at major private employers such as Sheffield Plastics, Wilkinson Excavating, or in the town's business park, now home to five tenants.

"Camaraderie and family values" are the hallmarks of the community, says Tammy Blackwell, the town's principal asssessor and a descendant of the Hewins family that began farming in Sheffield in 1837.

The town was the first in the county to be settled; Matthew Noble of Westfield scoped out the area in 1725, crossing what was then termed "the hideous howling wilderness" between his hometown and the fertile land in the township purchased from Chief Konkapot of the Stockbridge Mohican Indians the year before.

The English proprietors, John Ashley, Ebenezer Pomeroy and Thomas Ingersoll, paid for the purchase of an 18-mile by 12-mile area surrounding the Housatonic River with 460 Pounds, three barrels of cider and 30 quarts of rum. Their committee of three selected the first permanent residents, and home lots were drawn in three categories.

Noble, the first official settler, moved in with his 16-year-old daughter, Hannah, as housekeeper in 1726. Ashley built his own house in 1735, which stands as the oldest complete house in Berkshire County and is now the Colonel John Ashley House, a museum operated by the Trustees of Reservation.

The town, consisting of the Sheffield and Ashley Falls villages, was incorporated in 1733. According to the official Historic Preservation Report on file with the state, Sheffield had the county's largest population, second only to Pittsfield, during the first half of the 1800s because of its outstanding soil and arable land. The river and its floodplain are framed by the foothills of the Berkshire Hills to the east and the Taconic Range to the west; another major geographical feature is the Schenob Brook wetland complex, considered a unique, unspoiled ecosystem.

Sheffielders were among the leaders of the American Revolution; an early Colonial petition against British rule and manifesto for individual rights known as the Sheffield Resolves, or the Sheffield Declaration, was drawn up in January 1773 in Col. Ashley's house and published a month later in the Boston-based Massachusetts Spy newspaper. The bloodiest battle of Shays' Rebellion (the tax revolt of small farmers burdened by crushing debt) was fought in Sheffield on Feb. 27, 1787.

Early Sheffied resident Theodore Sedgwick, an attorney who lived across from the 1760 Old Parish Church (First Congregational, U.C.C.) in a large white house still standing, was a Revolutionary era patriot who became a state senator, judge, and a representative to the Continental Congress. He represented Elizabeth "Mum Bet" Freeman in her suit for freedom from slavery under Col. Ashley, the town patriarch; the 1781 judicial decision helped end slavery in Massachusetts.

Much of the town's past is captured in the original structures still standing, carefully maintained by the Sheffield Historical Society, organized in 1972 to interpret the town's past and maintain interest in local history. Examples include the society's headquarters and period museum at the 1774 Dan Raymond House, the resplendent home of a prosperous merchant and a Loyalist who became a Patriot; the Parker Hill Law Office (1820); the Hatter's Shop from the early 1800s and the Old Stone Store, which has served as a commercial building since the mid-1830s and is now being renovated as a museum and community information center. There's also a 19th-century carriage house with an agricultural exhibit, an early greenhouse that became the brick Learning Center in 1876 and a Greek Revival Smokehouse from the early 1800s. 

Tours of these properties are available between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. through Oct. 31, and the rest of the year by appointment. Information: (413) 229-2694.

As chair of the Board of Assessors, just as her great-great-great grandfather was, Tammy Blackwell points out that new arrivals "shouldn't complain" if they hear a rooster crowing at dawn's early light or detect other, perhaps odiferous farm-related activities; the town's recently approved right-to-farm bylaw requires new property owners to sign a statement acknowledging adjacent farming operations so there are no surprises.

Blackwell lives on the Hewins family farm known as Riverside, appropriately enough on Hewins Street.

Although its dairy operations ceased 30 years ago, fields are leased out to Morven Allen, owner of the Balsam Hill Farm, which houses Jersey cows and helps supply the High Lawn Farm operation in Lee.

"We're still haying, and we have some beef cattle, horses and a donkey," says Blackwell, recalling that her grandfather, Walter Hewins Sr., ran a well-known cider mill, and that the property also included a lumber bill, a carriage repair shop and a blacksmith shop. "We had everything going on," she says proudly.

Five active dairy farms remain in the town — Pine Island (which has been one of the largest family-owned dairy operations in the state), Balsam Hill, Toby Hill Farm owned by the LeGeyt family, and Kilmer. The Equinox Farm on Bow Wow Road is known for its mesclun lettuce, supplied to Guido's Marketplace and Price Chopper, among others. There are also nearly 20 smaller "hobby" farms owned by residents who keep chickens, cows and pigs.

Blackwell cites the tradition of neighbors helping neighbors as among the town's most charming attributes — "if there's a tragedy in the town or one of the families, people are always there ... they're compassionate."

"We're trying to preserve our beautiful town for upcoming generations," she stresses. "Farming is a wonderful tradition and it's nice to pass it along to the younger kids. They enjoy getting on the tractor, learning to grow crops. The way this economy is going, who knows what's going to happen in 20 to 30 years? We have to get back to the basics."

Change has come slowly to Sheffield — Blackwell notes there are 200 second-home owners, about 15 percent of the 1,300 properties in the town. But that's a much lower percentage than some of the neighboring communities to the north and east.

"In certain neighborhoods, there are affordable lots, and one developer, Ron Durning, specifically wants young working families to be able to afford and build their own homes," says Blackwell.

The Sheffield Land Trust is highly active in maintaining open space. Land Trust Executive Director for Land Protection Kathy Orlando reports that the town "has the highest concentration of farms in the county because of fabulous soils, families who have kept the land together so it's not fragmented and very skilled farmers. The key is to keep that up, stabilize the land base and support the farms as businesses."

Since its formation in 1989, the Land Trust has helped win Agricultural Preservation Restrictions and conservation restrictions on a long list of properties totaling more than 2,000 acres in Sheffield, including some key farms such as Balsam Hill, Larkin and Cold Spring.

As the largest member of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, with its recent $25 million state-of-the-art Mount Everett school complex housing around 900 elementary, middle and high school students, Sheffield finds itself in the unwelcome bulls-eye of a complex funding controversy — the town's "most immediate short-term issue," Select Board Chair Julie Hannum acknowledges.

In 1998, the five member towns agreed to an "alternative" method of funding the school district based on taking a "rolling" 10-year average of the number of students in each of the towns, updated each year "to deflect sudden changes in demographics," as Hannum explains it. This method, modified in 2001, has been the basis for each town's assessment supplementing state aid for the school budget. But, for Sheffield, the tax burden proved to be onerous, and residents voted down the school district budget and scuttled the agreement this spring, angering the other member towns — New Marlborough, Alford, Egremont and Monterey.

"No one can blame town officials for looking at the method that's the most financially viable for the town," Hannum points out. She cites guidelines issued by the state Board of Education earlier this year calling for a vote each year from each town on which method of funding is to be utilized.

The state method, also known as the statutory method, is the one favored by Sheffield officials now — it's based on a state calculation of what each town's assessment should be, based on its income levels.

Sheffield, while prosperous, is less so than the four other towns in the district but is more heavily taxed.

Hannum says her own property taxes would be one-third lower if her house and land were located in nearby New Marlborough.

"Since our tax rates are much higher than the other towns, Sheffield taxpayers are shouldering more of the burden than the other towns," she says.

A Proposition 2 1/2 override would have been necessary if the "alternative" funding method were to be retained by the town, since Sheffield is near the cap of its levy limit — in other words, the maximum amount of taxes it can collect without voter approval. The current tax rate is $11.47 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

According to Hannum, "taxpayers spoke loud and clear" at the annual town meeting, with a 60 percent majority favoring the state's more advantageous method of calculating the town's school assessment formula.

"People in Sheffield are not anti-school," Hannum declares, "but they're not appreciative of the high tax burden. They're very pro-school people, but we need our neighbors to share the cost of educating all our children. We're looking for other towns to better share the burden of the school assessment."

Hannum acknowledges the state's timing on its new guidelines is "very unfortunate and has thrown the situation into a difficult light."

On June 21, state Department of Education Associate Commissioner Jeffrey Wulfson backed the town's position, stating that Sheffield voters were within their rights when they pulled out of the district's regional assessment agreement at last month's annual town meeting.

"The agreement worked out between the five towns is only good as long as the five towns agree to use it," said Wulfson. "When not all the member towns are involved, the state method prevails."

But unless the towns reach a new funding agreement, including budget approval, the state board could take over the district on Dec. 1. Meanwhile, the state is funding the school district on a monthly basis, as of July 1, based roughly on the current $12 million annual Southern Berkshire district budget.

Hannum, for one, is "very confident" that the five towns will come to a "positive scenario and some resolution, hopefully" during a series of meetings this summer.

Meanwhile, the controversy simmers, fueled by Selectman David Macy's frank admission that he nominated replacements for Berkshire Regional School Committee members Catherine Miller and Marcia Savage, who had joined other members in approving the school budget, because he wanted Sheffield's representatives to be "on the same page" as town officials. Critics have termed the action a political purge intended to stifle dissent.

Meanwhile, Hannum and other town officials are focusing on the state-approved master plan conceived by local citizens, intended to preserve the environment, the agriculture and the scenic beauty of the town. The Open Space & Recreation Committee and the Housing Committee have been seeking the ideal balance among the goals of economic development, preservation and affordable housing.

With five businesses either up and running or planned for the Sheffield Business Park, which had been long vacant, the emphasis now is on expanding the availability of affordable housing — a formal Housing Commission may be created by the Selectmen within the next few months.

"We want to maintain the town's rural character but we also want to be able to promote proper economic development and housing. We have a very solid, close, networking community," says Hannum.

The town's advanced and detailed Web site helps bring residents together and keep them updated; the bi-monthly Sheffield Times is another informational resource, published by the Sheffield Association, a volunteer group.

Meanwhile, local beautification projects are front and center, with the creation of a new town parking area behind Gulotta's Mobil and a walkway from the Town Hall to the Old Stone Store, with engraved family names on the pavement. This project should be nearly completed in time for the town's annual community bash, Sheffield in Celebration, held the second Saturday in September.

With any luck, the town will also be able to celebrate the resolution of the school funding conundrum, which in some cases has pitted neighbor against neighbor.