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Williamstown Housing Committee Shifting Focus
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
03:40AM / Tuesday, March 29, 2016
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — With nearly 100 units of income-sensitive housing in various stages of development in town, the Affordable Housing Committee wants to focus on the broader issue of addressing the town's complete housing needs.

Chairman Van Ellet appeared before the Board of Selectmen on Monday to tell them the committee is working on a new housing needs assessment.

"We had a needs assessment done a few years ago … but that assessment really focused on subsidized housing," Ellet said.

The Affordable Housing Committee wants to broaden its scope, Ellet said, even suggesting the town rename the panel to simply the Housing Committee, partly for differentiation from the Affordable Housing Trust.

"The committee is grateful for all the progress that has been made on affordable housing the last few years," Ellet said. "I don't think any community in Massachusetts can say it has made the progress we've made. … Cable Mills, Highland Woods and Cole Avenue waiting in the wings represent about 98 units. That's a tremendous amount of new units.

"Given that scenario and the fact that we're probably a couple of years at least from completing Cole Avenue … those of us on the committee didn't see a great need at this time to be thinking about large-scale projects in the future."

The town's efforts around affordable housing were reinvigorated after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. The storm set in motion the events that led to this year's closure of the Spruces Mobile Home Park, which, while not subsidized housing, was a small "a" affordable housing option for scores of residents who lived in its 225 home sites.

Through a donation of land from Williams College, an accelerated approval process from the commonwealth and significant local municipal contributions, the Highland Woods senior apartments opened this month and eventually will have 40 units available. Another 13 income-sensitive units are included in the 61-unit Cable Mills apartments. Berkshire Housing Development Corp. is probably years away from putting 46 more units at the former Photech Mill site at 330 Cole Ave.

Ellet said Monday that the Affordable Housing Committee's new housing needs assessment would dovetail with the recommendations of the town's recently completed Economic Development Committee report and the efforts of the Planning Board, which has discussed the possibility of zoning that allows denser development in the town's core.

Affordable Housing Committee Chairman Van Ellet explains the committee's new focus on general housing needs.

"As noted in the Economic Development Committee report … people in this town recognize there are housing issues," Ellet said. "There is a significant mismatch between current housing stock and future housing needs. It is part of the overall economic vitality of the community."

After Monday's meeting, Debra Turnbull, who has managed the Spruces since the town assumed control of the park, reported that all but a little of the former residents' personal property has been removed from the site. The town received an extension from FEMA for the park's occupancy after a February incident delayed the opening of Highland Woods. But residents began moving into one wing of the new apartment building last week, and no one is currently living at the Spruces.

On Monday, another milestone in the park's history was reached when workers removed the sign advertising the adult community and two gates at the entrance on Main Street. The two stone lions that overlook the entrance will remain.

The Spruces property came up in yet another context on Monday evening, when Selectman Andrew Hogeland told his colleagues about the need for the town to develop an Open Space and Recreation Plan.

Hogeland said the town does not have one on file with the commonwealth, a deficiency that came to light in the context of potential state funding for a redevelopment of the Spruces acreage as recreation space.

"Happily, [town Community Development Director] Andrew Groff and [Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation Executive Director] Leslie Reed-Evans have been working quietly behind the scenes updating the [2003] draft," Hogeland said. "They're busily now trying to put something together.

"There are bunch of outreach requirements. And they want a committee to steward this."

Hogeland said such a committee would include representatives from the Selectmen, the Planning Board and outside groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Williamstown Youth Center. He volunteered and was appointed by his colleagues on Monday to serve as the board's representative to the Open Space and Recreation Planning Committee.

In other business on Monday, Town Manager Jason Hoch discussed the highlights of the fiscal 2017 municipal budget, which will get its planned final look from the Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Hoch noted that municipal operations budget is up by 2.3 percent from FY16, a rise of about $168,000 which is offset entirely by an increase in revenue from growth in motor vehicle excise taxes, building permits and rising hotel tax receipts.

One number has changed since the Fin Comm reviewed the town's allocation for Mount Greylock Regional School, Hoch reported. He currently is readjusting the town's allocation for the school to reflect increased capital expenses related to the calendar year 2016 start of the recently approved renovation/addition project at the junior-senior high school.

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