Tuesday, February 20
Rare is the Berkshire County community still served (for now, anyway) by an active one-room schoolhouse. And few towns sport three different zip codes — New Marlborough is a notable exception.

Although Egremont has seen extensive and expensive second-home development on its hillsides, including a few McMansions, the town remains an idyllic retreat for full- and part-time residents as well as visitors to its inns, bed and breakfasts and highly regarded restaurants.

Residential development is fueled by one-acre zoning, with only 150 feet of road frontage required for each property.

Dutch farmers first arrived in 1722, claiming lands under the Patents of Westenhook. The Mahican Indian tribe, led by Chief Konkapot, sold its territory in South Berkshire in 1724, including the area later to be known as Egremont. English settlers began arriving a year later, and in 1775, the town was incorporated and named for the Earl of Egremont.

By 1837, according to Hayward's New England Gazetteer, there were 968 residents, most of them engaged in farming as well as the manufacturing of leather, boots, shoes, harnesses, chairs and cabinetware.

Margaret "Peggy" Muskrat, a 35-year resident and the town clerk since 1982, finds Egremont a "wonderful place to live" and cites only a few unsurprising drawbacks — "it's not close to the ocean, and it's a long trip to a shopping mall." She cites the lack of senior housing as something to resolve "as we all get older."

Mary Brazie, a 25-year resident who lived previously just across the town line on a farm in Alford, serves on Egremont's Select Board and is also the office administrator at Town Hall. She says the diverse population is a major attribute: "Everyone is from different walks of life."

A recreation destination

The town's quiet atmosphere and fine scenery are highly appealing, according to Brazie. However, farmland is rapidly disappearing; there are only two working farms now, down from four when she moved into the town.

Drawbacks include spotty cell phone reception — it's best at higher elevations — and crazy-quilt Internet broadband access. Although Town Hall has it, Brazie points out that her home on the other side of Egremont Plain Road does not.

The town includes two distinct village centers, the primarily residential North Egremont and the more commercial, tourist-oriented South Egremont. There are two post offices and zip codes (01252 and 01258, respectively); residents who want rural home delivery supplied by the Great Barrington post office use that town's address and zip code (01230). Older maps also identify Egremont Plain between the two villages, and West Egremont along Route 23 near the New York state border.

There are a few retail businesses, but no gas stations.

Town services include a highway department that residents praise for keeping the roads plowed and in good shape, a volunteer fire department and a full-time police force. While the tax rate is unusually low for such a prosperous community ($6.33 per $1,000 of assessed value), housing prices are among the highest in the county.

As a result, "it's tough for young people" to stay in town, Brazie observes, and that creates a shortage of emergency workers for municipal services such as the volunteer fire department.

The town's major recreational facility is French Park, with ball fields, courts for tennis, volleyball and basketball, horseshoe pits, picnic areas, hiking trails, and horse rings and trails. Outdoors enthusiasts flock to the 1,000-acre Mount Everett Reservation, which includes a popular hiking trail to the summit (elevation 2,624 feet) and outstanding views of three states.

Catamount Ski Area straddles the border with New York State and is popular with day-trippers since it's only two hours from New York City.

High-tech schools

From second grade upward, Egremont's children attend the Southern Berkshire School District's Undermountain Elementary School and the Mount Everett Regional Middle and High School in Sheffield. The recently rebuilt $25 million complex has state-of-the-art high-tech facilities as well as gyms and a large auditorium. The school can accommodate 1,500 students, but only 860 are currently enrolled, according to the state Department of Education. That's a decline of about 14 percent in the past five years. The school offers innovative programs and class periods split into unusually lengthy blocks.

But 16 students still attend the South Egremont School, which serves kindergarteners and first-graders. Some of them are school-choice students who live outside Egremont. The school needs an estimated $250,000 in repairs.

At their annual town meeting on May 1, residents will vote on whether to close the school and transfer its students to the Sheffield campus. Only town voters have the authority to close schools in the Southern Berkshire district; according to Brazie, it appears a simple majority is needed to resolve the issue. In 1981, residents voted to close the North Egremont Elementary School.

Selectmen Chairman Bruce Turner favors the closing, even though he attended the school, as did his two children and his father. Brazie feels the same way.

Until recently, it was assumed the town owned the building, so there were discussions about using it as a new site for the town library, or as a museum. But Brazie says a recent examination of the deed revealed that the historic building was bequeathed to the town by the Dalzell family in 1880 for permanent, exclusive use as a school. Family heirs are being sought by Town Counsel Jerome Scully.

Apart from the school issue, the annual town meeting is expected to be quiet, with the annual town budget the other main order of business. Residents voted down a sewer line two years ago; proposals to extend town water to North Egremont have been deemed too expensive.

Egremonters pride themselves on civic participation; there are 935 registered voters, close to 90 percent of the voting-age population, and turnout is high for national and local elections. About 80 percent of the voters turned out for the 2004 general election; a recent special election for a new selectman drew 30 percent, even though Haas ran unopposed.

There's a strong community spirit in the town, even when there are divisive issues; the biggest concern that comes up in conversation with residents is the struggle to retain the open space and scenic beauty in the face of continuing development of multi-million dollar properties as retreats for wealthy urban refugees.


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