Great Barrington OKs trust policy

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GREAT BARRINGTON — "One of the reasons I moved to this town is that this area has a strong tradition of social justice."

Lily Swartz, a new resident of the town, made that case on Monday in favor of a community trust policy to protect undocumented immigrants from federal agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The policy was among 28 items considered during the annual town meeting, which was held at Monument Mountain Regional High School. More than 400 people packed into the the Kathleen E. McDermott auditorium for the hours-long session.

Only the last item, which called for a public commission to explore options for school consolidation, was defeated. New solar bylaws and the trust policy generated intense discussion, as did an easement to allow the Community Development Corp. of the Southern Berkshires to continue its redevelopment of the property at 100 Bridge St.

All four items reflected the debates of the last year in town government. And the old arguments flared up again and again.

100 Bridge

A proposed easement for 100 Bridge St. faced intense opposition from a few vocal opponents of the project. The easement would allow the corporation to replace wetlands near the site by opening up an existing underground stream. The wetlands replacement is a prerequisite for developing the site handed down by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Bill Warford appealed to the town to reject the easement, thereby stopping the project. This was the last chance, he argued, to force the corporation to redo its plans — which place affordable housing units next to the town's wastewater treatment plant — after months of debate at Town Hall failed to stop the project.

Warford argued that the corporation should not put poorer people on the contaminated land — especially not with the high-end developments elsewhere in town.

"Why don't we put the affordable housing up by Wheeler and Taylor," Warford said, referring to the Benchmark Development project at 42 Bridge St., "and put the rich people by the wastewater treatment plant!"

Warford's comments received applause, but in the end the easement narrowly passed by a counted vote of 185 to 170.

Solar bylaw

Three amendments to the solar bylaw were considered. The first two restricted solar development in the town's historic Taconic Avenue neighborhood. The amendments generated discussion but both passed.

A third amendment to ban commercial solar in the town's agricultural zones, proposed by Holly Hamer, was the main source of contention during the debate. Hamer's amendment would have ended attempts to place a solar field on the Coons farm property on West Plain Road. The proposed energy development is why Hamer is running for a position on the Planning Board board, Hamer told The Eagle in March.

Planning Board Chairwoman Brandee Nelson, who guided her board through months of negotiations to draft the new bylaws, responded by saying that while the two other amendments were vetted, Hamer's was not.

"This amendment by Ms. Hamer has not had an opportunity to be appropriately evaluated on its merits," Nelson said, "and I cannot support it."

Hamer's amendment failed decisively and the package of solar bylaws were passed shortly thereafter.

Immigration policy

The immigration trust policy also faced resistance — but only from two members of the audience, Steve Farina and Chris Tufts. The policy was developed by Gwendolyn VanSant, the CEO and executive director of Multicultural BRIDGE, Lia Spiliotes, executive director at Community Health Programs, and the local nonprofits Berkshire Interfaith Organizing, and Berkshire Stand Up for Racial Justice in collaboration with the town and police department.

The Select Board passed a resolution last winter affirming the town's commitment to its undocumented community. The new policy essentially designates the town as a "sanctuary" from ICE for undocumented immigrants.

Farina and Tufts expressed their skepticism.

Tufts said he worried that the town could lose federal funding and that the Police Department would not be able to arrest anyone who was not a citizen. Farina was concerned about the MS-13 gang and the Police Department's ability to deal with gang violence in town. The Eagle's reporting has not found evidence of an MS-13 presence in Great Barrington.

Police Chief William Walsh told the crowd that the policy would not burden the department. ICE and local police act independently, he said. And as far as dealing with dangerous criminals, Walsh added, the trust policy wouldn't change the department's ability to handle them.

"I am comfortable with the fact that if we have a bad guy here, we have tools to remove a bad person," Walsh said.

The room overwhelmingly voted in favor the policy, with only Tufts and Farina opposed. The crowd broke into spontaneous applause after the resolution was passed.

SCHOOL CONSOLIDATION

But the night wasn't quite over — Sharon Gregory's citizen petition for a nonbinding resolution calling for a public commission to look into options for school consolidation was the final item of the meeting.

Gregory argued that the townspeople need more of a say on the possible consolidation of school districts in the Southern Berkshires than only their representation on the School Committee. Gregory showed the crowd how Great Barrington's central location positions the district well between Lenox, Lee, and Southern Berkshire Regional School Districts.

She cited Great Barrington's tax burden for the schools, a frequent cause for consternation among the townspeople, as a motivator for the public taking a larger role in negotiating possible district consolidation. This year's assessment increased by 5.99 percent, more than Stockbridge or West Stockbridge's assessment, due to changes in property values and enrollment.

But School Committee Chairman Steve Bannon, who also is vice chairman of the Select Board, said making the statement that the town is looking to consolidate could send the wrong message. The district is already in negotiations, he said.

"If anything, this will do harm," said Bannon.

The motion failed, Moderator Michael Wise moved to adjourn, and with that, the meeting was over — after just under four hours.

Reach staff writer Eoin Higgins at 413-496-6236 or @BE_EoinHiggins.

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