|Williamstown Community Preservation Committee OKs Nine Applications|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
05:40PM / Friday, February 08, 2019
|The Community Preservation Committee will recommend $10,000 toward restoration of the 1753 House despite one member's objection that it's not a historical building.|
From left, Town Manager Jason Hoch, Planning Board member Chris Winters and Conservation Commission member Phil McKnight participate in Wednesday's Community Preservation Committee meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — It was an emotional night in the Selectmen's Meeting Room on Wednesday.
But it was not the kind of tense, angry emotion that sometimes attends contentious issues that come before municipal bodies.
Rather, the evening was marked by the good feelings that come when public funds are going to advance the public good.
"This one gets me every year," Community Preservation Committee Chairwoman Jane Patton said after her panel unanimously agreed to recommend funding the town's Affordable Housing Trust.
"This is the best committee."
In the end, all nine were recommended to May's annual town meeting -- most, but not all, by unanimous votes.
The evening began with some informational items from Town Manager Jason Hoch, a voting member of the committee.
Hoch shared an answer provided by the Friends of Linear Park, which is seeking funds to help replace the playground at the park off Water Street. In answer to a question raised by the committee at its Jan. 23 meeting, Hoch reported that the equipment in question has an expected lifespan of 25 years and that the rubber padding that goes beneath the equipment is good for 15 years.
Hoch also explained the town's continuing commitment to pay off the $1.1 million bond that helped pay the town's $1.5 million commitment to the Cable Mills housing complex on Water Street. In fiscal 2020, that bond payment is $127,600, and that number drops by about $3,000 per year until the bond is paid off in FY25, Hoch said.
Although the town is on the hook for those payments whether or not it continues to participate in the Community Preservation Act (in recent years, some have suggested voters should be given the chance to reconsider the 2002 enabling vote), the original intent of the commitment to Cable Mills was to use CPA funds, and that historically is where the money has been drawn.
The CPA account is funded largely by a 2 percent surcharge on local property taxes (with the first $100,000 in valuation exempted) and is supplemented by a partial match from the commonwealth. The act allows those funds to be used to support historic preservation, affordable housing and open space and recreation projects.
The CPC vets applications and recommends them to town meeting, which has the final say.
The other new information presented to the committee on Wednesday came from Hoosic River Watershed Association President John Case, who told the committee that HooRWA has applied to the commonwealth's Recreational Trails Program for funding for a trail that would link the two components of Linear Park.
CPC member Phil McKnight asked whether the town meeting warrant article can specify that if said funding comes through then HooRWA's $20,176 CPA request could be withdrawn. Case said his group would be happy to do so.
Most of this year's applications were approved by the committee with minimal discussion on Wednesday, but a few did generate some debate.
The most divided vote of the night came on a $34,800 request from Sand Springs Recreation Center. The funds would be used to allow the non-profit to make the second floor of its building accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Sand Springs board believes that with the addition of the upstairs space, the center will be more financially viable because it can monetize that space as, among other things, rental space for parties at the venue.
Patton, who disclosed that she was on the original Sand Springs board that raised funds to purchase the property by the current non-profit entity, argued that the center and its community pool is an asset to the town that is worth supporting.
"I do strongly believe in both the historical preservation of Sand Springs and what is happening over there," Patton said. "Irrespective of how this vote goes, sometime this summer on a hot Wednesday, go see 100 kids in that pool who got in for a minimal amount through scholarships, etc.
"This [alteration to the building] should significantly open up revenue streams that are currently unavailable to them."
Longtime CPC member Chris Winters was one of three members who voted against the application on Wednesday and the only one who spoke against it.
"I'll be consistent with the last time I voted on this," Winters said, referring to a 2017 Sand Springs application. "My concern is the use of tax dollars for a private entity. They may be a nonprofit, but it is a business nonetheless. Notwithstanding what [Patton] said, it's a direction for use of CPA money that I know is not unprecedented, but it makes me uncomfortable."
Winters was joined by Hoch and Peter Mehlin voting against the Sand Springs application. Susan Clarke, who fills the Finance Committee's chair on the CPC, abstained, and the application was recommended 4-3-1.
McKnight was the lone dissenter in the evening's other non-unanimous vote, a 7-1 decision to recommend $9,815 to repair the roof of the 1753 House at Field Park.
McKnight raised two objections: that the town should be able to fund the project another way and that the 1753 House, while depicted on the town flag that loomed over Wednesday's meeting, is not historic.
"The little building is not historic," McKnight said. "It's old and leaky. It's a recreation.
"I'll give you an analogy. If an applicant came to us with a request to repair a musket used by [town founder] Ephraim Williams, we'd support it. If the application was made to repair a plastic replica of Ephraim Williams' musket, we'd turn it down. What we're being asked to do is use CPA funds to repair a historic replica that has no historic value.
"I don't think that's an appropriate use of the funds."
Bill Barkin, who occupies the Historical Commission's seat on the CPC, confirmed the former body did find the 1753 House is a historic asset to the town and argued that it is an iconic symbol of the town and one of the first things visitors stop and look at.
McKnight's other objection led to an amusing interchange between him and Hoch.
"Does the town have the $10,000?" McKnight asked his colleague.
"The town has whatever the taxpayers are willing to pay as an increase to their taxes," the town manager replied.
"Can it be funded as part of the normal budgetary process?" McKnight asked.
"The normal budgetary process requires the support of the taxpayers to pay said budget," Hoch answered.
"Well done," McKnight said, ceding the field.
The Community Preservation Committee will meet at least one more time this winter, to approve the final language of the nine warrant articles it will send to town meeting.