Office of Rural Policy would give Berkshires an edge - and it could happen

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A Massachusetts Office of Rural Policy, which supporters say would advocate for rural communities on Beacon Hill, soon might become a reality.

In passing an economic development bill Tuesday, the House adopted an amendment that would establish the office. The Rural Policy Advisory Commission (RPAC), which would oversee the office, says the proposal would help to ensure that legislation out of Boston doesn't overlook the needs of small towns in Western Massachusetts and Cape Cod.

"Right now, we rarely have that proactive look at policy and programs and legislation, and it's not until things have been enacted until we say, `Hold on, this doesn't make sense for a rural municipality,' " said Linda Dunlavy, who chairs the RPAC and serves as executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments.

"I think our hopes and aspirations are that an Office of Rural Policy will be proactive and will be able to be our eyes and ears in Boston."

The policies that work for urban and suburban communities might not suit the unique needs of rural communities, and the office could add a rural perspective on all legislation that goes through the Statehouse. It also could research and propose solutions to long-standing problems that have contributed to rural population decline.

The amendment was co-sponsored by state Reps. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, and Paul Mark, D-Peru, who, as co-chairman of the rural caucus, has said that establishing the office was the caucus' top priority this session. Their proposal would require the office to have an executive director and "adequate staff" to advise the Legislature, executive branch and administrative agencies.

"The more voices we have fighting for us in state government, the more likely it is that our voices will be heard and that policy and regulations will reflect the needs of our communities," said Mark, the only legislator serving on the RPAC.

The RPAC, which was established in 2015 and began meeting in 2016, outlined key priorities in a "rural policy plan" released last October.

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'A cycle of crisis'

A lack of jobs, reliable broadband and effective transportation has spurred population loss in Western Massachusetts and Cape Cod, Dunlavy said. Since population plays a key role in state and federal funding formulas, the result is lowered funding levels to education and infrastructure, further driving population loss.

"It just becomes a cycle of crisis," Dunlavy said.

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Rural municipalities can struggle to compete for grants with municipalities that serve more people, said Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. He cited Gov. Charlie Baker's housing choice plan, which was passed in the House economic development bill, as an example of a proposal that might not help the Berkshires as much as it does Eastern Massachusetts.

"The housing choice program that the governor has is really aimed at growing communities in the eastern part of the state," he said. "They get payments if they have so many housing units that get developed. In the Berkshires, we don't really get a lot of development, so, we can't benefit from that."

The Office of Rural Policy's "direct benefit to Berkshire County" is that "any policy that is adopted would have the rural policy lens applied to it," Matuszko said. Unique rural priorities include developing service-sharing between municipalities and addressing transportation gaps, he added.

"Public transit doesn't work very well unless you have population density, so, how do we provide a public transit that works for rural communities?" he said.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, authored an amendment to the Senate economic development bill to create the office. He withdrew his amendment before debate, but the office would "make sure that we don't have parts of the commonwealth that fall behind" due to lack of understanding rural communities' needs, he told The Eagle.

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"[The RPAC has] recognized that too many policies and regulations take place in Boston without understanding the implications for small towns," he said, "and this is an effort to ensure that the administration has a voice in the office to really understand the implications for rural communities."

The Legislature takes up an economic development bill every two-year session. The House and Senate included funding for broadband and rural development in their versions of this year's bill. The two branches will conference to produce a final bill to send to the governor, and having made it into the House bill, the Office of Rural Policy is on the table to be enacted.

Massachusetts' population could grow 11.8 percent by 2035, a 2015 study estimated, yet, greater Boston would experience 22.5 percent growth, vastly outpacing 1.1 percent growth in the Berkshire/Franklin region. That disparity should serve as an argument to provide greater support to rural Massachusetts, Dunlavy said.

"We already have a housing crisis in the Boston area," Dunlavy said, noting calls for a statewide rail project. "We already have crowded highways in the Boston area. So, why, as a commonwealth, would we allow those projections to come true? It would not be sound planning or good growth management."

She referenced anecdotal reports that the coronavirus pandemic has led more people to want to move from cities to Western Massachusetts but said the region needs help so that it can support possible new residents.

"We may get people who say, `City living is not for me,' " Dunlavy said. "Are we able to accept them and provide broadband, jobs and transportation?"

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.


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