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Vacancy Filled on Williamstown Planning Board
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
03:31PM / Saturday, November 19, 2022
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board and Planning Board last week filled a vacant seat on the Planning Board.
 
By a vote of 8-0, the combined panels appointed Williams College professor Allison Guess to the post vacated earlier this year by Dante Birch.
 
Guess will serve on the Planning Board through May's annual town election, when the seat will be on the ballot for the remainder of the five-year seat Birch won in 2019.
 
Guess is a professor of Africana Studies at the college and is a trained geographer and environmental scientist.
 
She told the boards on Monday that she has an "appreciation for land" and understands the housing housing affordability question that the town has been confronting in recent years.
 
"I suspect some of the issues might pertain to low income or affordable housing while also thinking about conservation of this beautiful environment we live in," Guess said. "[It involves] thinking through issues of climate change and climate justice.
 
"There might be another issue with the fact that Williams College owns a significant portion of the land in Williamstown. If you don't have access to that property, you won't have access to affordable housing."
 
Guess was one of three residents who initially expressed an interest in filling the vacancy. Anna Halpin-Healy, the business operations manager at Cricket Creek Farm, also was interviewed by the boards on Monday evening. Alison Case had submitted paperwork but withdrew her name from consideration on Sunday citing Guess' "outstanding qualifications" for the position.
 
Members of each board, which has joint authority to fill vacancies between town elections, praised both the remaining applicants for their strong qualifications.
 
"Anna [Halpin-Healy] has been living here a little bit longer," Planning Board Chair Stephanie Boyd said. "Her personal experience would be really great. Allison is new to the community, which is also great, to come here with fresh eyes, and has more direct academic and work experience.
 
"For that reason, I'd move Allison."
 
Remaining Planning Board members Peter Beck, Kenneth Kuttner and Roger Lawrence joined Boyd in voting to approve that motion, along with Select Board members Hugh Daley, Randy Fippinger, Andy Hogeland and Jeff Johnson. Jane Patton did not attend Monday's meeting.
 
Prior to the vote, they asked each applicant a round of similar questions.
 
Halpin-Healy said she understood the importance of preserving the town's rural character and allowing local farmers to survive but did not think that goal was irreconcilable with addressing the need to allow housing people can afford.
 
She, like Guess, acknowledged the challenge of working with the town's largest employer on the community's land-use issues.
 
"Williams is not unique in terms of how colleges are expanding tremendously into their communities," said the self-described "faculty kid" who grew up in a number of college towns. "That is something that can make a town feel like they're being engulfed.
 
"We can make recommendations, we can build relationships with the college. … It comes down to building those relationships, trusting, having open conversations."
 
Both were asked about the dual challenge the Planning Board faces of not only developing zoning bylaw amendments but educating residents about the proposed changes prior to town meeting.
 
"I don't have a problem speaking with people," Guess said. "I do that every day in my day job. Communication is a strong capacity I have. I've trained people in communication. I also have a background in community organizing — working in national and local campaigns. Knocking on doors is something that does not deter me."
 
Both candidates said they would intend to run in May's election if appointed to the seat on an interim basis.
 
In addition to helping fill the vacant seat on one of the town's other elected boards, the Select Board was thinking about the panels under its umbrella.
 
The board worked to put finishing touches on a new policy to direct its process for appointing residents to committees and discussed implementing a code of conduct for the panels under the Select Board's jurisdiction.
 
The four members present agreed that the code of conduct does not need to have an "enforcement" mechanism, but it nevertheless is good to have a statement of principles of civility like those promoted by the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association.
 
The Select Board members recognized that they had no authority to institute a code for elected bodies, like the Planning Board, but indicated they hope such panels would follow the Select Board's lead if and when it finalizes a code.
 
The board neared completion of an updated charge for the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee that it created in 2020. And it engaged in a discussion of how the town can react to racist incidents like the recent spate on the Williams College campus.
 
And bringing to a close another subject arising out of the issues that roiled town government two years ago, the Select Board voted unanimously to adopt the new human resources policies that grew out of an HR audit the board commissioned in 2020.
 
Daley recognized Hogeland for shepherding the revision process, which included a recently concluded period of public comment on the updated policies. And Daley stressed that the town needs to more regularly review the HR policies going forward so that the revision process is not as labor intensive.
 
"These are documents that need to be continuously improved," Daley said. "You have to stay on top of them. The law changes, norms change, new technology comes in. It's better to take small bites at this than have a 2 1/2-year process."
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