Great Barrington Master Plan predicts big time future infrastructure costs


GREAT BARRINGTON -- In the next 20 years, the town's shrinking and aging population will be on the hook for "tens of millions of dollars" in renovation costs, a potential threat to the current quality of living residents have come to expect, according to the town's recently drafted Master Plan.

Aging infrastructure will need to be renovated, including Monument Mountain Regional High School, the wastewater treatment plant, and the town-owned bridge on Bridge Street. In addition, the evolving job landscape no longer allows the town to rely on a tax base previously supported by high-paying manufacturing jobs. Climate change portends unpredictable additional challenges, the report says.

"Keeping the quality of life and services while being able to pay for these major capital costs will be a major challenge," said Town Planner Chris Rembold, who worked with the 15-person Master Plan Committee to produce the report.

Following three years of discussion, the Master Plan Committee has developed an 87-page report updating the town's previous Master Plan, last updated in 1997. Once approved, the document will serve as a road map outlining policy priorities and short-and-long-term goals.

The plan will be submitted to the Board of Selectmen and Planning Board during a joint meeting Sept. 26.

The Master Plan, which was developed with members of town boards and commissions, includes sections on land and economic development, housing, agriculture, historic and cultural resources and other topics related to long-term development.

Recurring priorities in the report include the need to accommodate an aging and shrinking demographic, the need for large-scale infrastructure repairs, the need for a high-paying job base and concerns about how climate change might impact life. The town has also set environment-friendly policies that include development of renewable energy and making town operations self-sufficient of electricity by 2025.

According to the plan, Great Barrington is a smaller, older and more diverse town compared to demographics from the 1980s. The town's population, which includes a growing Hispanic population of 7,104, has decreased by nearly 10 percent since 1990.

The town's seasonal population is 14 percent -- comparably less than the 30 percent to 50 percent in surrounding South County communities -- a potential benefit because some build expensive homes and contribute to the tax base while not using infrastructure and schools they support.

Great Barrington's population is aging, with nearly one-third of households housing residents over 65 years.

While there is an aging demographic, Great Barrington has fared better maintaining young adults ages 24 to 44 than other surrounding communities, according to the plan (though only one-quarter of homes have children under 18).

"That's the age when people are settling down and starting families and going to work," Rembold said.

The Master Plan identifies existing strengths that should be protected, including the town's quaint "country atmosphere and small-town setting."

This can be accomplished, for example, by focusing on infill and development of dilapidated buildings that include the old Housatonic school, Housatonic mills and Great Barrington Fairgrounds. The plan says the town should consider assisting that development with Community Preservation Act funding and facilitating development through the town's permit process.

In the years to come, new businesses can be cultivated if the town facilitates the rollout of a fiber-optic network to homes throughout the community, according to the report: "Fiber optic services must reach all the way to the home, where many of our independent artisans, consultants and professionals do their work. Improved wireless communications services is also a priority, for the whole town, not just the core along Route 7."

The plan emphasizes the importance of protecting open space, which can be dually accomplished by protecting and encouraging farm opportunities, enacting farm-friendly policies and promoting an agritourism industry. The farming industry can also be boosted by educating people about the town's Right to Farm bylaw and developing a commercial community kitchen.

Citywide, affordable housing is a concern, with nearly half of homeowners and almost two-thirds of all renters in Great Barrington spending more than 30 percent of their household incomes on housing costs.

The 30-percent level is the generally accepted metric for determining affordable housing.

Recommendations include targeting blighted property to create new affordable housing, encouraging the development of affordable housing by third-party agencies and a property tax abatement program for property owners who rent units below the market rent value.

"It's this balancing act of what makes us strong, and development that makes sense," Rembold said about the plan.

In the next several weeks, there will be additional meetings hosted for solicitation and feedback on the Master Plan. Anyone interested is encouraged to call the town planner at 413-528-1619, ext. 7.


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