|Dog Leash Bylaw Among Issues Before Williamstown Town Meeting|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
05:26AM / Friday, May 12, 2023
|A dog-leashing bylaw will be on this year's Williamstown town meeting warrant from Select Board member Randal Fippinger following complaints about untethered dogs on the rail trail and at Spruces Park. |
Select Board member Randal Fippinger says dog owners aren't following the rules and that's keeping some residents from enjoying some of the town's recreational areas.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Randal Fippinger does not want to see a dog fight on the floor of the annual town meeting.
Fippinger authored a warrant article that would require dogs to be kept on leash unless they are on the property of the dog's owner or in an "area designated off-leash for dogs."
The measure would strike the current language in the town's bylaw, which indicates that "voice control" is an acceptable means for controlling dogs in public areas.
Fippinger said this month that he has nothing against dogs or their owners but is concerned that there are residents who do not feel safe walking in their own community — a situation that has been highlighted on the recently completed multimodal trail running from Syndicate Road to the Spruces Park on Main Street.
It is not an effort to pit "dog lovers" against "dog haters," Fippinger is quick to point out.
"When I make my comments on the floor at town meeting, I want to make it clear that dogs should be able to run free," Fippinger said. "I believe we should have a dog run area where dogs can run free. It's not about dogs running free. It's about all residents in town feeling comfortable in all the public spaces in town."
The leash bylaw, Article 32 on a 42-article warrant
, is one of several that might generate debate at the meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, May 16, at 7 p.m. in the gymnasium at Mount Greylock Regional School.
For the first time in several years, the bulk of the potential debate may not center on zoning bylaw amendments proposed by the Planning Board, Articles 20-24. In fact, at the board's public hearing on its bylaw amendments last month, the only residents to speak to the measures did so to praise the proposals.
Far less popular at the hearing were a pair of proposals —Articles 25 and 26 — introduced on the warrant by the owner of Sweetwood
Independent Living Community on Cold Spring Road (Route 7). Applicant CareOne had proposed a zoning change that would allow the assisted living facility to have regular multifamily (i.e. apartment) housing, a move that necessitates two changes to the town code. This had prompted an outcry from the current residents and their families that it would be a death knell to the type of supportive services they rely on.
CareOne has asked the moderator to pull both warrant articles.
"After hearing the residents' and the Planning Board's concerns, the landowner would appreciate more time to work with residents and the Board to find the best zoning solutions for the property," CareOne's attorney, Karla Chaffee, told iBerkshires.com on Thursday.
Articles 3 through 15 on the warrant focus on the business of town government and were the subject of more than a month of in-depth review by the town's Finance Committee
Historically, the "fiscal" warrant articles are among the least discussed on the floor of the meeting, a fact not lost on long-time Select Board member Andrew Hogeland. At a pre-election forum leading up to Tuesday's vote, Hogeland, who was running for his fourth three-year term on the board, said, "if you're worried about the taxes, you should be worried about it a few months earlier when we vote for the budget."
The budget for fiscal year 2024, which begins on July 1, includes a 4.11 percent increase in "general government" expenditures, a pot of about $9.7 million that includes the operating budgets for town departments.
The projected tax rate increase in FY24 is about 1.3 percent, a figure that takes into account both spending on "town" expenses and assessments from the two regional school districts, the Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School District (McCann Tech) and the Mount Greylock Regional School District.
Williamstown's bill from McCann Tech is actually down by 19.3 percent from FY23 due to fluctuations in enrollment; a relatively small number of Williamstown residents make up the student population at the North Adams secondary school.
Mount Greylock's appropriation ($13.2 million) is up 3.16 percent from the current fiscal year. But the loudest criticism heard by district officials during the budget process was from constituents who were concerned about lack of spending — in two specific areas.
In order to meet the budget
increases requested by town officials in Williamstown and Lanesborough, the district cut from the budget about $100,000 set aside in FY23 for a director of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging position that was not filled for the current school year; and school officials declined to add a full-time visual arts instructor to support expanded instructional opportunities at the middle-high school.
The DEIB position cut, in particular, drew criticism from members of the School Committee and Williamstown's own diversity committee, and those concerns could be raised again on the floor of Tuesday's meeting.
It is worth noting, though, that the budget presented to the two towns is a bottom-line budget. Neither Lanesborough nor Williamstown can tell the district how to spend its operating budget. And any proposal to increase the assessment paid by Williamstown at its town meeting would need to be matched by a proportional increase proposed and passed Lanesborough's town meeting on June 13. Regional school districts are supposed to be funded by member towns based on the formulae set forth in the districts' regional agreement.
Later on at Tuesday's meeting, Williamstown meeting members will be asked to OK an expenditure that does the opposite: spending more tax money from Williamstown than Lanesborough on a track and field project at the middle-high school in the form of a Community Preservation Act grant.
In addition to its operating budget for FY24, the Mount Greylock district has two other articles before Williamstown voters on Tuesday. One, Article 18, seeks borrowing authority for up to $800,000 to cover funding shortfalls on the track and field
project; the cost of that borrowing would be shared by Lanesborough and Williamstown, per the regional agreement.
Article 19 seeks the member towns' approval for the regional school district to create a stabilization fund, a pot of money from which the district could draw in future years to address extraordinary expenses, like large capital needs. The school district is not seeking any money to fund the stabilization account in FY24, but if both towns pass the measure at their respective town meetings, a line item could be created in the district's operating budget in future years to fund the account.
Select Board articles
For the first 26 articles on the warrant, ending with the second Sweetwood bylaw amendment, the moderator will have the option to rely on voice votes or call for votes to be cast using electronic voting devices
Article 27 will ask the members, after, theoretically, they have some experience with the "clickers," whether they want to make them a permanent feature at town meeting.
For the initial meeting, the vendor providing the devices is essentially renting them to the town with the cost of the rental applied to the purchase price if Williamstown decides to keep them. Article 27 asks town meeting to "authorize" the Select Board to spend up to $27,000 to purchase the devices. That money is earmarked from the town's American Rescue Plan Act allocation.
Town meeting will try voting electronically this year.
Advocates of the clickers say they are potentially faster than requiring meeting workers to count the number of members standing and holding aloft pink or yellow cards to indicate their voting preference. The clickers also can introduce an element of anonymity at town meeting, ensuring that all members feel comfortable voting their conscience without succumbing to peer pressure.
Clicker critics say the devices would diminish the long-cherished town meeting tradition of every resident rising to express their opinion on whatever topic is on the table. Environmentally conscious residents also have raised concerns about the impact of the batteries used by the clickers.
One more point about clickers: Since their distribution will be a new feature of check-in this year, the town clerk is recommending that members arrive a little earlier than they otherwise might for the 7 p.m. meeting.
The second article on the warrant drafted by the Select Board, Article 28, seeks to limit the flags that can be flown on town flagpoles to the American flag, the state flag and the POW/MIA flag.
Select Board member Andrew Hogeland, who took the lead on drafting the proposed bylaw, did so out of concern that without specificity in the law, the town's flagpoles could be construed as "public forums" for free speech. He warned that in light of a recent Supreme Court case, municipalities need clarity about what is and is not allowed on town flagpoles, less groups seek to fly flags that don't align with the values of residents — in an extreme example, the KKK could demand "equal time."
Others, including members of the Select Board, have raised concerns that the flag bylaw as drafted is too limiting and that the town should allow for display of other flags, like, for example, that of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, which is currently located in Wisconsin after being forcibly removed from its ancestral home in Williamstown.
A Select Board article that has received little to no criticism is Article 29, which would expand the state's current property tax exemption for senior citizens. The article seeks to lower the age of eligibility from 70 to 65, double the amount of the exemption from $500 to $1,000, and raise the limits on asset- and income-eligibility to the maximum now allowed by the commonwealth with annual adjustments for inflation.
Article 42 on the warrant, the final measure of the night, was a late addition by the Select Board and a repeat of an article passed overwhelmingly by the annual town meeting in 2022. Last year, the meeting members agreed to ask Boston to increase the number of all-alcoholic beverage licenses for off-site consumption in the town. Earlier this year, state Rep. John Barrett III reported back that the request died in the Legislature because the current preference of the committee dealing with such requests is for the home-rule petitions to come with a specific entity or business development district attached.
This time around, the meeting members will be asked to approve a request to the Legislature to add a single license in the town, which would be granted to Ashnit LLC, doing business as the Gold Leaf Shop in the Williamstown Plaza on Main Street.
Articles 33 through 38 deal with grants from the town's Community Preservation Act receipts. The grant requests were reviewed and sent to town meeting by the Community Preservation Committee this winter.
As mentioned above, Article 35 seeks $100,000 in CPA funds toward the track and field project at Mount Greylock Regional School — about 2.4 percent of an estimated $4.125 million project. Although regional school district expenses are shared proportionately by the district's member towns, Mount Greylock officials say they have an opinion from district counsel that it can accept $100,000 from one of its towns without a like contribution from the other; Lanesborough does not have the Community Preservation Act, and the district has made no request for a separate appropriation from the town.
CPA money is generated in Williamstown from a 2 percent surcharge on property values, after the first $100,000 are exempted.
Articles 39-41 seek appropriations of town tax money to support three local non-profits which town meeting traditionally has supported in the past with little to no discussion: the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce, Williamstown Youth Center and Williamstown Community Preschool.
Remember that state flag that is included in the proposed bylaw about what can and cannot be flown on town flag poles? It comes up again in the first citizens petition article that town meeting members will see on Tuesday: Article 30.
The article seeks an expression of support from the town for an effort in Boston to change the current state flag with its depictions of "conflict between the European Colonists and the Native Nations of the region." The Legislature in 2021 created a special commission to address the flag and seal, which depicts a colonist holding a sword over an Indigenous person with the motto, "By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty."
A second citizens petition, Article 31, asks the meeting to change town elections to a ranked-choice voting or Australian ballot system in which voters express their numerical preference for candidates (first, second, third, etc.). But on May 4, one of the proponents of the ranked-choice voting who helped put the article on the warrant told the Charter Review Committee that advocates plan to "withdraw" the article on the floor of Tuesday's meeting and instead asked the committee to include the initiative in proposals it plans to bring to town meeting in May 2024.
The town voted in favor of ranked-choice voting in a 2020 statewide ballot initiative by a margin of 64.5 percent to 35..5 percent. Statewide, the question was defeated with 55 percent voting against.
The Select Board voted, 5-0, last month to take no position on the local proposal, saying it was introduced too late for the locally elected board to properly consider the plan.
The third and final article introduced by citizens petition is Article 32, the dog leashing article.
Based on feedback from his colleagues on the Select Board, Fippinger has drafted language to amend the article that he will introduce on Tuesday night. The amendment clarifies the intent of the proposed bylaw, which is that dogs in town will be leashed when not on their owner's property or in a designated area, like a dog park.
Fippinger said he knows many of his constituents are passionate about the idea of keeping their dogs off leash. But he also learned in the past year that there is a closed Facebook group for town residents who are afraid of being approached, jumped on or worse by unleashed dogs.
In 2022, there were 128 calls to the Williamstown Police Department for dog bites and/or animal control support, an 18 percent increase from the year before, the warrant article notes.
"I know you don't need a lot of signatures for a citizens petition, but when I went to the Harper Center, I got 10 signatures immediately from seniors feeling uncomfortable going to the Spruces or going on the 'rail trail,' " Fippinger said.
Fippinger has said publicly that he has been yelled at by a dog owner on the multimodal trail when he asked them to leash their canine, as required on the trail's posted signs.
At a recent Select Board meeting, his colleagues suggested that while the town's bylaw on dogs may need amendment, the town should form a committee to study the issue and bring a bylaw proposal back in May 2024.
Fippinger said it is not fair to make residents who are fearful for their safety in public places now wait another year for a potential fix.
"I think it's worth having a community conversation now," he said. "That's really what I want to spur [with the warrant article]. I have been advised by a number of senior folks in town hall that we just need to have more education. Well, the bike trail is posted, ‘No walking of dogs off leash,' but people do it all the time. The point of bringing up the petition is to have a community conversation around this.
"I obviously want [the article] to pass, but even if it doesn't, it sparks a community conversation."
Tuesday will mark the second straight year the annual town meeting will be held at Mount Greylock after many years at Williamstown Elementary School (and two outdoor meetings at Williams College's Weston Field in 2020 and '21).
In order to help residents in the town's core who may have issues getting to the middle-high school, the Council on Aging is offering transportation. Residents should call 413-458-8250 and select Rick, the van operator, from the menu of options. The COA asks that anyone needing a ride call by Monday, May 15, to make sure everyone can be accommodated.
There will be some child care available at Mount Greylock for families with small children.
If you want to avoid the harmful UV rays and stay inside this weekend, Willinet, the town's community access television station is currently airing a marathon of broadcasts of town meetings from 1999-2022 on its channel 1302 and on its website, willinet.org
"Everyone looks so young," Willinet Executive Director Deb Dane said. "But you can see there's this longevity of experience of people in town government."