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Swiatek, Spruces Group Seek Town Funds to Help Buy Park
By Stephen Dravis, Williamstown Correspondent
07:59PM / Monday, April 01, 2013
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Kenneth Swiatek is pushing a plan for the town to pony up $365,000 toward helping Spruces residents purchase the park, and reject a $6 million FEMA grant to demolish and relocate the residents.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Former Selectman Kenneth Swiatek has filed a citizens petition asking town meeting to appropriate funds to help residents of the Spruces Mobile Home Park buy the property.

"We're just trying to have a better discussion and offer options to people," Swiatek explained at a Monday afternoon news conference attended by six Spruces residents who belong to the group Save The Spruces.

"The Spruces residents would like to stay in their homes rather than than be evicted from their home sites. I think residents of the Spruces need to be fully informed ... and treated with dignity and respect."

About 66 homes remain occupied at the park, which at one time had room for 226 owner-occupied sites but was devastated after flooding caused by 2011's Tropical Storm Irene.

The town of Williamstown and property owner Morgan Management of Rochester, N.Y., applied last year for a federal flood mitigation grant in excess of $6 million on the condition that the town — which would take ownership of the property — close the park, which sits in a 100-year floodplain.

Last week, the town received word from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that the grant has been approved, but as of midweek Town Manager Peter Fohlin was awaiting the arrival of an official acceptance letter.

Under a settlement with Morgan Management, the landowner would accept $600,000 from the grant to relinquish its title to the town. The remainder of the grant would go to the town to remove infrastracture at the park, to the residents to assist with their relocation and toward development of new subsidized housing on a town-owned parcel off Stratton Road known as the Lowry property.

Swiatek, a Stratton Road resident and vocal opponent of developing Lowry, filed a petition Monday afternoon to put an article on the May 21 town meeting warrant. The article calls on the town to "act with due diligence and timely action to investigate and mitigate Spruces' flooding" and appropriate $365,000 to the 'Save Our Spruces' tenants cooperative, which then would be required to raise the remaining $235,000 to pay Morgan Management $600,000, the dollar figure it would recover under its agreement with the town.

Fohlin has told on two separate occasions that the town has no inention of getting in the way of the owner-occupants' "right of first refusal" for purchasing the park, a right granted in Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 140, Section 32R. Fohlin also consulted with Attorney General Martha Coakley, who watches out for tenants' rights, before applying for the FEMA grant.

On Monday, Swiatek admitted that the timing of a town meeting vote to fund Save Our Spruces would be problematic if the Board of Selectmen votes to accept the grant prior to town meeting. Assuming the followup paperwork from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (which administers the FEMA grant) has arrived at Town Hall, selectmen could face that question as early as their April 8 meeting.

Once the town accepts Hazard Mitigation Grant, it would be obligated to go through with the demolition of the park.

It's possible that the 45-day window for the park residents' right of first refusal would begin as soon as the grant was accepted — and end sometime in late May if the grant papers were signed on April 8.

"There's no question it would be a race against time," Swiatek said on Monday. "But accepting the grant would not preclude the residents from exercising their right of first refusal."

In the citizens' petition submitted by Swiatek and SOS, town meeting will be asked to give ...

    $200,000 in CPA funds for the housing trust
$100,000 in CPA funds given to the housing trust last year
$65,000 in funding for the Youth Center

... toward the residents' purchase of the mobile home park.

The Affordable Housing Trust and the Affordable Housing Committee are holding a joint meeting Tuesday, April 2, at 6:30 to discuss the FEMA grant, the Lowry property and other proposed affordable housing projects in town.

To further complicate matters, the town has scheduled a special town meeting on April 24 to deal with another citizens' petition to vote on either placing Lowry into perpetual conservation or approving the development of 10 of its acres for affordable housing.

It also was unclear at Monday's press conference to whom Swiatek expects $365,000 of town money to be appropriated.

The Spruces group is an informal committee of park residents. In February, its chairman told that the group represented just more than half of the park's 66 residences, but SOS Vice President Lucy Sherrill, who attended Monday's meeting, said the group's membership "changes."

But whatever its number, the group is not an incorporated entitity, let alone a non-profit, so it is debatable whether the town would give $365,000 to "a 'Save The Spruces' tenants cooperative effort," as it is referred to in Swiatek's petition.

Save Our Spruces member the Rev. Susan Stewart said Monday the group plans to transform into an organization that includes the entire community prior to the May 21 town meeting.

The Swiatek petition specifies three potential sources for the $365,000 of town money he wants to give the residents' cooperative: the entire $200,000 of Community Preservation Act funds requested by the town's Affordable Housing Trust, $100,000 of the CPA money given that trust last year and $65,000 proposed for the town's annual contribution to the Williamstown Youth Center.

At Monday's meeting, Swiatek argued that the town should address water brought to the park from the south by three streams. He contended that those streams — not the Hoosic River to the north — were the main problem during the Irene flooding at the Spruces.

In February, Williamstown Public Works Director Tim Kaiser explained that while the streams brought water into the park, the real problem during Irene was the Hoosic's rise, which prevented the flood chutes from releasing any of the water from those streams.

"We applied for a FEMA grant to look at rerouting the pipe ... but it wouldn't have made a difference," Kaiser said at the time. "It might mitigate some nuisance flooding that is inconvenient, but the real threat is from the river. FEMA felt that way, too. They wouldn't even consider funding (pipe work).

"They are considering funding to remove [residents] from the park because they see that that's an effective way to get them out of harm's way."

Asked Monday whether he thought the town would simply take his word for it that the flooding can be fixed, Swiatek replied: "The town should have fixed that a long time ago."

Earlier this year at the request of Spruces residents, the Selectmen asked the Army Corps of Engineers to study the property to see whether future flooding could be prevented. The Corps on Monday indicated it would not.

Whether the park could be saved is — at best — unknown. What was certain on Monday was the passion of the handful of residents who turned out to support Swiatek in his petition.

"This was a model community for building mobile home parks around the country," Stewart said. "Some of us have a dream of restoring that."

Resident Linda Chesbro shares that dream.

"The town is misusing [Irene] as an opportunity," Chesbro said. "I think they've wanted this land for a long time, and I feel this was an opportunistic move.

"I love my home."

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