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Williamstown Panel Starts Building a New Comprehensive Plan for Town
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:09PM / Saturday, January 08, 2022
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Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee members, clockwise from top left, Stephanie Boyd, Sue Briggs and Huff Templeton, along with consultant Steve Whitman.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The panel charged with shepherding the town's new comprehensive plan discussed on Tuesday some of the elements that they want to see addressed in the state-mandated document.
The town's consultants from Plymouth, N.H.'s, Resilience Planning and Design asked the committee appointed by the Planning Board to provide feedback about topics that need to be addressed under two of the broad sections expected to be included in the plan.
The state requires that a plan address at least seven key issues: land use (including the "proposed distribution, location and inter-relationship of public and private land uses"); housing; economic development; natural and cultural resources; open space and recreation; municipal services and facilities; and transportation.
On Tuesday, the committee tackled one of the state-mandated elements, town services and facilities, and sustainability, which appeared as a goal in the town's 2002 Master Plan but did not have a dedicated section.
"This won't be the last time we talk about any of this," noted Eric Halvorsen of RKG Associates, another part of the consultant team.
Resilience Planning's Steve Whitman told the committee that while every municipality is a little different, the "services and facilities" sections of plans he has helped develop typically include an inventory of municipal infrastructure, a description of services offered, interviews with town staff about existing deficiencies or shortfalls and an assessment of what services community members would like to see the town or city offer.
Sometimes, those discussions produce competing narratives about priorities.
"We do get a lot of information and a lot of opinions and also, in some communities, kind of a wish list that sometimes can exceed the financial capacity of the community," Resilience's Steve Whitman said. "The whole point of having the committee is to use you as a sounding board so you can tell us, ‘Here's what we're hearing.'
"It's also great to use the public as a sounding board also to help determine what are the things that would be nice to have and what are the things that may not be necessary. …  A lot of people in some towns want a community pool or a community ice skating facility. Those things are nice to have, but they are expensive, so they might fall lower on the priority list."
In answer to a question from Melissa Cragg about whether the comprehensive plan will include cost estimates for the "services and facilities" actions it recommends, Whitman noted that his firm does not do architecture or design work, so it can't get into specifics. But he said the plan could include general categories of work that would be more expensive or less expensive.
"We should be able to separate the $100 ones from the $100 million ones," Planning Board member Stephanie Boyd joked.
 Among the municipal infrastructure topics raised on Tuesday night were water lines, the fire station, town hall and the Harper Center.
"I'm on the Council on Aging, and they have great programs there, but they're dealing with a very old building," Susan Puddester said. "I came from another state where the senior centers were state of the art. I think it could either be bigger or it could be totally rehabbed. Great services, but the building is very old."
Town Planner Andrew Groff brought up the Municipal Building during the committee's discussion of sustainability.
"Town hall is an energy hog nightmare," Groff said. "It's probably our most problematic facility."
On the other hand, members of the committee noted that the town in recent years has addressed the issues of sustainability and resilience by installing a 5-megawatt solar array on the capped landfill near the transfer station, working with Williams College to complete a new drainage and stormwater retention system in the Village Business District and taking possession of the town's streetlights with plans to install LED fixtures that will be more efficient and allow for dimming at different hours of the day.
Among the issues the committee mentioned Tuesday as potential topics for the next iteration of the comprehensive plan were wind turbines, promoting pollinator health and following the model of other jurisdictions by phasing out the use of fossil fuel-driven mowers and blowers.
Daniel Gura cautioned his colleagues on the committee against allowing their own biases and priorities to drown out the voices of the residents they serve.
"What often times happens is that things get prioritized, in part, by the people who are willing to do them," Gura said. "If people who are excited about being on a committee about 'X,' 'X' happens. … I do want us to be very cautious about the degree to which we think these things are important and are intersections in our lives, but they may not be nearly as much for other people who have much greater immediate needs and say, ‘Gosh, if you only had 24 hours in a day, the last thing I want you to focus on is that.'
"I'm not making any judgments about any of these things. I'm just saying it's absolutely critical. Because we could end up doing a lot of stuff that is really good for us and we think is important but doesn't nearly get to the crux of what really matters to people on an everyday level. And I have no idea how to manage for that."
The consultants discussed with the committee the broad outlines of a community outreach plan that will gather feedback into May 2023, the date targeted for adopting the new comprehensive plan.
Part of the committee's effort to respond to public concerns came at the outset of the meeting when it voted unanimously to eschew the word "master," with its loaded historical meanings in favor of the more neutral but descriptive term "comprehensive." Committee member Justin Adkins raised the issue at the panel's Dec. 21 meeting.
Whitman advised the committee that while the statute requires municipalities to have a master plan, it does not specify what that plan is called, and a town can choose any title it wants.
After the committee voted to change its name from Master Plan Steering Committee to Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, Boyd said she will bring the request back to the Planning Board for approval at its January meeting.
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