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Williamstown Con Comm Keeping Spruces Article on Town Meeting Warrant
By Stephen Dravis,
12:15PM / Wednesday, March 20, 2024
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Conservation Commission last week reaffirmed its commitment to a proposal to transfer control of the Spruces Park to that body.
Con Comm Chair Lauren Stevens asked his colleagues whether they wanted to reconsider a decision to ask town meeting to put the Spruces property under the commission's care, custody and control.
"The Spruces is a multi-use property, everything from the agricultural portion to a bike path to a pollinator garden to dog-walking and, soon to be established by the Select Board, an unleashed portion of the dog walking even though FEMA will not allow a fence," Stevens said. "A portion of the land will be available for people walking their dogs without a leash.
"Those are most of the uses for the property at present. Are we the ones to manage that? We do have some experience with mixed-use properties. We do have agricultural uses on some of our properties, and we think of Margaret Lindley Park — where we manage the land but do not manage the swimming, if you will, concession there.
"What we're involved in at MLP is pretty much what we're involved in at the other nine properties. It's pretty much passive management. We let the trees grow. We are interested in trails, and we are interested in signs. We occasionally visit the property lines to make sure they're in order. But our approach to management is what I would call low key. The question I would ask is, are we the appropriate body to manage the Spruces?"
Stevens said that instead of focusing on the article the commission already submitted for inclusion on the May meeting warrant, the body instead could advocate for the creation of a parks commission, as members of the Select Board have indicated they would like to see.
Cory Campbell, who was the primary author of the warrant article, said he could go either way.
"I agree with Lauren, if we withdrew this warrant article, I'm committed to directing all of my energy into the establishment of an independent parks commission, which should have been done long before now," Campbell said. I'm fine fighting for this warrant article. I'm fine withdrawing it with the understanding that I would personally advocate for an independent parks commission.
"All the other issues, if we wanted to continue to fight for this article — Article 97, the dog park, recreational fields — I don't know if it's worth talking about all that unless we're committed to having that fight."
Campbell got a glimpse of that argument in late February, when he presented the Con Comm's article to the Select Board.
 "The reaction of the Select Board was less than positive," Commissioner Barbara Robertson said. "That made me think, if they don't support it, the townspeople who are vocal right now are vocal in a negative way in general — on the dogs, etc.
"On the other hand, if the town votes it down, what's lost? Not much. I don't feel as optimistic about the town supporting it as I did, but I don't feel we need to withdraw it."
The commissioners all agreed that whether or not the former mobile home property was, like nine other town-owned parcels, in the care of the Conservation Commission, most of the Spruces land is jurisdictional to the commission under the Wetlands Protection Act. So even if another town body wanted to use the property, it would need to go before the Con Comm, not to mention gaining approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has a deed restriction on the land.
Henry Art recalled that back when the town had a separate recreation committee, the Conservation Commission worked with that body on Margaret Lindley Park, one of the parcels under the Con Comm's control.
"If the Con Comm is responsible for the jurisdictional areas that are wetlands and buffers and flood plains that represent the vast, vast, vast majority of that property, to me it makes sense having the Con Comm being the primary authority and then pulling in DPW or the Board of Health if dog feces are a real issue and a recreation committee," Art said.
"I think the town really should have a recreation committee, but that is, in a way, a separable issue in my way of thinking. We shouldn't lose this opportunity, not as a power grab, but in dealing with the wetland realities, the flood plain realities, and we'd have a central role in looking at flood plain community restoration and ecological restoration on that site, which FEMA would like to see happen."
Philp McKnight joined Art in arguing that the warrant article makes sense.
"I would rather see us obtain control of the Spruces, because our record with the nine properties we do manage on behalf of the town, I think, is excellent," McKnight said. "And most of that management is: Leave it alone. Can't do that with the Spruces. We'll have to be more proactive, because there are those in town who would like to do lots of things with it that can't be permitted. A recreation committee is not the right vehicle to address those requests. I think our body is."
No one on the body made a motion to rescind the article that town meeting will address in May.
During the meeting's public comment period, former commissioner and frequent participant from the floor of Con Comm meetings Robert Hatton questioned whether the body's management of its current properties has been "excellent."
"Because of the great variety of community interest in all kinds of recreation for the Spruces Park and the limits placed by FEMA, I think a separate committee, such as the former Spruces Land Use Committee, appointed by the selectmen with the availability of a town lawyer would be better suited to deal with FEMA in the future," Hatton said.
"The Conservation Commission has all it can handle without adding a job the Recreation Committee can do. … I think the Conservation Commission is over-extended as it is, and they should leave the Spruces to a committee the selectmen can appoint. They can call it anything they want, a recreation committee or parks commission or the original Spruces Land Use Committee."
After Hatton's comments and before the meeting adjourned, Campbell offered one more opportunity to reconsider the warrant article.
"I just want to make sure everyone is going to be comfortable with what will probably be a very contentious conversation, not just at town meeting but leading up to town meeting," he said. "I hope this doesn't happen, but it's possible any one of us will be confronted on Spring Street or at the grocery store or something like that.
"I just want to be certain everyone is perfectly willing, come what may, to support this. Because, if you're not, say so tonight."
Again, no one moved to rescind the article.
The Conservation Commission plans three public information sessions on the warrant article in the runup to town meeting: April 13, from 2 to 4 p.m., at the Williams College Bookstore; April 12, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Milne Public Library; and April 24, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Town Hall.
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