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Williamstown Will Vote Land Issues at Special Town Meeting
By Stephen Dravis, Williamstown Correspondent
11:53PM / Monday, March 25, 2013
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It was standing-room only at the Selectmen on Monday night as the board set the warrant for a special town meeting on April 24.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — In a three-hour meeting that featured passionate debate and parsing of state law, the Selectmen on Monday approved the warrant for a special town meeting that hopes to give some resolution to long-simmering issues regarding the future of town-owned land off Stratton Road.

The meeting, which was spurred by a citizen's petition on the future of the so-called Lowry property, will be held on Wednesday, April 24, at 7:30 p.m. in gymnasium at Mount Greylock Regional High School.

Two articles on the agenda for the meeting will deal directly with the 30-acre Lowry property by name. A third will address a conservation restriction sought on a privately-held 39.4-acre parcel on Oblong Road.

A fourth proposed article failed to make it onto the April 24 warrant. It would have enacted a provision in Massachusetts law allowing communities to transfer land for the purpose of building affordable housing by a majority vote.

That article, originally called Article 2 on the draft meeting warrant, failed to achieve a majority of assents from the selectmen attending Monday's meeting. Selectman Thomas Sheldon and acting Chairwoman Jane Allen voted in favor of putting the article before the voters; Selectmen Ronald Turbin and Thomas Costley voted against adding it to the warrant. Chairman David Rempell did not attend Monday's meeting.

A standing-room only crowd joined the debate as the Selectmen tangled with an ambitious agenda ranging from the special town meeting warrant to a proposed "festival" bylaw to a proposed warrant article seeking money to advance the construction of a new police station.

The items that drew the most interest involved the Lowry property, which has been identified by the town as a potential site to build subsidized housing to replace some of what has been lost — and likely will be lost — at the storm-damaged Spruces Mobile Home Park.

"There will be, in town meeting, to the extent we take this up, a discussion of values," Sheldon said. "I think a lot of people will say they value a lot of things. I value open land. I value natural beauty. I value the right of farmers to make living. I value affordable housing. ... I value the idea that we deal as humanely as we can with the people at the Spruces.

"I believe the 10.5 acres in Lowry is the only way to fairly address that situation. It's the only property 'in play' that would allow us to create a community akin to what they enjoy at the Spruces: free-standing homes with a patch of green around them."

Sheldon offered an amendment to an article on the warrant that asks the town to transfer 10.5 acres of the 30.5-acre Lowry property from the town's Conservation Commission to the Board of Selectmen "for affordable housing purposes." Sheldon's amendment specifies that the remaining acreage be placed in conservation "in perpetuity."

The article proposed by the Selectmen stands in direct opposition to the article generated by the petition presented by Stratton Road resident Sarah Thurston and Robert Scerbo of Longview Terrace and signed by 312 town residents.

The article, which made the special town meeting warrant by virtue of those signatures, asks the town through its Conservation Commission to hold the entire Lowry property in conservation "in perpetuity."

Between the two articles, voters will have a clear choice on the future of the property.

But it is unlikely there will be agreement on the intent of a 1987 town meeting vote that put the Lowry property under the jurisdiction of the Conservation Commission in the first place.

The question of whether the Lowry property is truly "conserved land" has been subject of some debate in and around town in recent weeks. In a February speech to the League of Women Voters featured prominently on the town's community access television station, Town Manager Peter Fohlin made the case that the Lowry property originally was acquired not for open space but for the high school that eventually was located on Cold Spring Road.

On Monday, he explained that the distinction involves the level of protection afforded land under state law. Citing an opinon provided by town counsel, Fohlin explained that in order to take the Lowry property out of control of the Conservation Commission, the town needs a vote of town meeting and the Con Comm itself.

"If it had been acquired for conservation, it would have attained protections of Article 97 of the state constitution and would have required a third step, which is a vote of the Legislature," Fohlin said. "For what it's worth, I would call it two different types of conservation."

But Fohlin's argument does not sit well with opponents of the plan to develop the Lowry property and it even drew skepticism from Turbin, who identified himself as supporting the effort to build subsidized housing on the site.

"It was voted to the Conservation Commission (in '87) for conservation purposes," Turbin said.

Turbin made that remark in the context of an at times arcane debate on the merits of General Law Chapter 40, Section 15A, which enables towns to allow land for the purpose of affordable housing by a simple majority instead of a two-thirds vote.

Ken Swiatek, an advocate for preserving the Lowry land, raises his hand to speak.

A proposed warrant article would have enacted that simple-majority rule in Williamstown, but Turbin and Costley balked at the notion, maintaining that fairness dictates that land put into the control of the Con Comm by a two-thirds vote 26 years ago should only be pulled out of its control by a similar two-thirds vote.

"This is a very controversial issue in town, and personally I hope it's advanced and we have the land to build 20 units or 30 units on 10 acres, but it's a passionate issue in town, and I wouldn't want to see it approved by one vote," Turbin said. "If it is passed, I would like to see it passed by two-thirds, which the town is accustomed to when land changes hands."

What normally might be a less controversial issue - the approval of a conservation restriction on 39.4 acres of privately held land — found itself wrapped up in the vortex of Lowry and the Spruces that has consumed public discourse in town since November.

Dr. Eric White has been before the Selectmen and other town bodies on numerous occasions to discuss his proposal for a conservation restriction on the property known as Carmelite Fields. Earlier this year, he sought a final vote approving the restriction, but Selectwoman Allen argued that White's application should be part of a broader conversation about conservation in town.

White on Monday night made one last effort to have the board resolve the question without sending it to town meeting. As he did in February, he had support on the panel, and he picked up an advocate in the audience as well.

"It's unfair to subject Dr. White to a town meeting in front of a large group of an uninformed electorate," said resident Tad Ames of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council. "I don't think it's right when every community handles it through the Board of Selectmen."

As he did in Februrary, Turbin made a motion that the Selectmen consider White's application, and just like last time, his motion failed for lack of a second.

"I've always loved that piece of land," Costley said. "I can't ever see anyone building on it. ... That said, separate and apart from the merits of your proposal, we need a community conversation. It's just terrible timing for you. I suspect it would pass at town meeting. I don't ever shy away from my obligation. ... I think voting on it now and passing it now would color the conversation."

The board did hold its customary non-binding advisory vote on the warrant article, and all four in attendance — including Allen — voted to recommend its passage. The board voted 4-0 to recommend passage of the article transferring the Lowry property to its control and unanimously against recommending passage of the article that would keep the property under the auspices of the Conservation Commission.

The fact that article is joined on the warrant by a proposal to do its inverse drew criticism at Monday's meeting.

"To take a citizen's petition and put two or three articles before it to minimize the impact of it - I think it's a crafty little thing you're doing," Ames said.

The chairwoman of the town's Affordable Housing Committee disagreed.

"One could say calling a special town meeting on this issue is a 'crafty little thing,'" Catherine Yamamoto said. "Putting all these things on the article together is not crafty. It's logical."

All the issues surrounding Lowry likely will be vetted at two non-official events prior to the April 24 special town meeting. On Wednesday, April 10, the community access channel, WilliNet, will hold a community conversation with committee members from 7 to 9 p.m. at Mount Greylock. On Friday, April 12, from 10 to noon, the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition will hold a conference on affordable housing in the region at First Baptist Church in North Adams.

In other business on Monday, the Selectmen discussed its role in the town's efforts to build a new police station. Costley argued that he and his colleagues should be the advocates for the town's police force, which struggles against a cramped, inadequate facility on a daily basis.

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