Community roiled after deep disagreements at Adams redistricting hearing
ADAMS — Disturbing behavior at a Monday night Planning Board meeting sparked outrage online and defense of the community as a whole from town officials on Thursday.
The hearing was regarding a proposed amendment to the zoning bylaws to create a "Smart Growth Overlay District," also known as the 40R program, a tactic that is encouraged by the state to allow redevelopment in town centers of underused or blighted properties. These districts include affordable housing for low- to moderate-income renters.
The hot room was packed, and the crowd seemed agitated. The comments from residents regarding low-income families described scenarios where town services would become overwhelmed, crime and drug use would rise, and schools would be flooded by students of low-income families with special needs.
The rhetoric pushed one woman to publicly note that she moved to town as a single mother with a low income and an autistic child. She said she volunteers in the community and works hard, but now wonders if she should move out of Adams.
As she left in tears, several in the crowd encouraged her to act on her notion to move out of town.
When The Eagle posted an article about the meeting on Facebook, readers expressed outrage at the behavior of some audience members, and disappointment in the town of Adams in general.
William Kolis, an opponent of 40R who spoke at the meeting against the proposal, said Thursday that the comments don't reflect the entire community, and that there is an undercurrent of anger in town.
"Generally the people in Adams are very good people," he said. "But there is fear, they feel disenfranchised. And they didn't get enough notice about this meeting."
In an email to The Eagle, Kolis further noted that he felt the article about the meeting was not an accurate reflection of the discussion.
"This incident, while constituting the lead and theme of your article, does not in my opinion capture or accurately represent the newsworthiness of the meeting or the legitimate back and forth discussion of the procedural and substantive issues which, admittedly, were discussed with emotion by all interested parties," Kolis wrote. "Issues, which are not only complex and of great significance to the populous and future of Adams, but worthy of a full and complete airing in the newspaper of record for Berkshire County."
Donna Cesan, as director of Community Development for Adams, was a presenter at the meeting.
Thursday, she noted that there had been a swirl of misinformation circulating on social media before the meeting about the proposal that incited unwarranted fears among some residents, which resulted in a fearful, irritated crowd. She said she also regretted that the town didn't provide more widespread notice about the hearing, which also sparked irritation among those in attendance.
"It's hard to counter the ill effects of social media," Cesan said. "There was an effort at fear mongering."
She said some of the pushback at the single mom was because people had made up their minds and didn't want to hear opposing viewpoints. And she said there could have been a few more dire motivations among the crowd.
"Adams, like other towns, is made up of people of all positions — and what we're seeing on the national level is being played out on a local level," Cesan said. "It's like they've been given the OK to do that, and it's not attractive. It's certainly doesn't reflect the overall view of people in Adams."
She referred to the "drawbridge mentality" that some folks have — they move into town, and then they don't want anyone else moving in.
Cesan did find it frustrating that while more than 58 percent of Adams residents have low to moderate incomes, some of those same people are afraid of others with a low to moderate income.
"They were against people coming to town in that same income bracket," she said. But with diverse housing options in town, she added, "it will be good to mix it up, have new people and new ideas coming into the community."
She emphasized that the community as a whole isn't in line with that way of thinking.
"I do know it doesn't reflect the community as a whole — and that's what bothers me the most," Cesan said. "I thought, `Wow. This is not Adams.'"
Town Administrator Jay Green and Select Board Chairwoman Christine Hoyt were also at the meeting. Both said they were disheartened by the behavior of some people in the crowd.
"I was obviously disappointed and horrified for a woman who was brave enough to speak about her own personal struggles in a large, crowded room," Hoyt said. "It was a disrespectful display that had nothing to do with 40R."
Green had a similar reaction.
"I was disheartened that a small, angry group of people would reflect poorly on Adams like this," Green said. "They do not speak for Adams and their treatment of her was demoralizing."
Green also felt bad about the town staff that was trying to present the case for 40R.
"No matter how articulate, no matter what they said or how they said it, that crowd was not going to hear it," he said.
He attributed their response to "misinformation and fear. Unfortunately, the trickle-down effect of a very tumultuous national political landscape has found its way to Adams."
"I observed a lot of fear in that room," Green added. "Fear of change, fear of the future. But we're going to continue to pursue progress in Adams in a thoughtful, articulate and well-planned way. And this week we'll be studying a better communication strategy to make sure that the correct information is seen by the community."
Scott Stafford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-629-4517.
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