|Williamstown Planners Advise Conservation of Oblong Road Parcel|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
04:30AM / Wednesday, August 03, 2022
|The Planning Board last week advised the Select Board to assign the town's option to buy a 10-acre parcel of farmland on Oblong Road to Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board last week advised the Select Board to assign to a local non-profit the town's option to buy a 10-acre parcel of farmland on Oblong Road.
In a unanimous vote, the planners recommended the town assign its right of first refusal to the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation for a lot currently conserved under Chapter 61 of Massachusetts General Law.
Under Chapter 61, land in agriculture is eligible for property tax relief. Part of the tradeoff for the landowner is that when the land is sold, the municipality has the right of first refusal.
The parcel's current owner, Beth Phelps, has a purchase and sales agreement for $745,000, contingent on the land going through the Chapter 61 process, which includes a 120-day period for the town to decide whether to exercise its right of first refusal or assign it to a qualified non-profit, like WRLF.
Although the Select Board
twice has discussed the request and heard from representatives of Rural Lands and the operator of Sweet Brook Farm, which grazes its beef herd on the Oblong Road parcel, that 120-day period may not have technically begun.
"[The seller is] supposed to notify the Select Board, the Planning Board and the tax assessor," Planning Board Chair Stephanie Boyd told her colleagues at their July 26 meeting. "There was a little delay in notifying the Planning Board's office. This notice of intent has to be resubmitted, and we have not received it yet."
Nevertheless, the Planning Board at its July 26 meeting responded to a July 11 request from the Select Board for a recommendation on the WRLF request.
It was clear from the discussion that most of the planners agreed that preserving the land as farmland should be a priority for the town.
At June's annual town meeting, attendees approved a change in the bylaw requested by the Planning Board to make the promotion of "a diverse and affordable mix of housing types" part of the board's purpose. But none of the planners argued that the type of housing proposed for the South Williamstown parcel would serve that purpose.
"This, to me, is a classic example of how we lose farmland," Boyd said of the development that Williamstown Rural Lands is looking to prevent. "We wouldn't be losing farmland to the kind of housing we've been talking about on this board and in this community. … On this 10 acres, the proposal to date is two large houses.
"It's not solving the housing problem we're trying to solve."
Much of the Planning Board's July meeting dealt with ways to address that "housing problem," both by reconsidering a series of bylaw amendments referred back to the board by town meeting and considering new solutions, like removing a ban in the town code on manufactured homes and instituting local limits on short-term rentals, which many argue take housing stock away from potential full-time residents.
But the board also heard testimony from representatives of WRLF and Sarah Lipinski, who owns and operates Sweet Brook Farm.
She said the farm has about 50 acres in pasture and hay, including 10 acres on the parcel in question, which is adjacent to the larger property.
"It's fabulous for grazing our beef," Lipinski said. "We can sustain our herd there for a month in the summer."
The executive director of WRLF pointed out a second benefit of preserving the land in question.
"On this stretch of Oblong Road, this may be the only viewshed of the Greylock range," Robin Sears told the Planning Board. "This also has a great deal of scenic value for passersby. People go there from near and far to run and cycle and walk."
Sears said it was the non-profit's intention to purchase the land and arrange a conservation restriction that would keep it in agriculture, perhaps allowing for a small amount of passive recreation, like a pulloff for a picnic table.
Also, as she did before the Select Board earlier in the month, Sears indicated that WRLF is still working on positioning itself to exercise the right of first refusal if the Select Board chooses to make the assignment.
"We are not entirely prepared to accept the assignment of the right of first refusal, but we are working very hard to get to a decision about whether or not we could actually exercise that," Sears said. "We are asking for time to plan."
Members of the board raised the question of whether the town could exercise the right on its own – in other words, buy the property – or contribute financially to help WRLF meet the $745,000 purchase price.
Boyd pointed out that such an expenditure likely would require a special town meeting to meet the non-profit's time frame.
Assuming the notice of intent issue is resolved by the end of August, the 120-day window for exercising or assigning the right of first refusal would end in late December at the latest. WRLF then would have a 90-day window to exercise the right and close the deal, which would keep the transaction well within the town's 2023 fiscal year and the budget authorized by town meeting in June of this year.
In the end, the Planning Board adopted a simple motion to support the transfer of the right of first refusal to Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation. Boyd and Dante Birch were tasked with drafting a letter to that effect to the Select Board, which asked for a response by its Aug. 8 meeting.