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Letters: Vote No on Article II to Use Lowry Land
Letters to the Editor,
12:13PM / Monday, April 08, 2013
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To the Editor:

I am going to be out of the country on a long-ago scheduled trip and therefore unable to attend the special town meeting on April 24. Having served on the town's Planning Board, its Board of Selectmen and been an active resident of Williamstown since 1972, I would like to share some thoughts on the matters before the special meeting. I am on the board of directors of the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation, but these views are mine alone.

It is extremely unfortunate that the issues have unfolded in a manner that pits two important objectives of the town — conservation of open space and agricultural land against affordable housing. It is not only unnecessary at this stage, it is very divisive and will likely result in neither objective being advanced. The citizens of Williamstown have long supported both objectives as reflected in the town's Master Plan, the Community Preservation Act and, more importantly, in actions taken to achieve both. For instance, in the area of affordable housing, Proprietors Field, the Church Street apartments, and homes of Habitat for Humanity have all enjoyed widespread support of the town, as have easements and acquisitions conserving important open space and agriculture.

These activities have helped make Williamstown an attractive, diverse and dynamic community.

While the town is to be commended for seeking and receiving the grant from FEMA and addressing the hardships suffered by the residents of the Spruces, several points can be made why this conflict, at this time is unnecessary, certainly premature.

First, and, for the moment, without regard to the conservation status of the Lowry property, is the Lowry site (or any other isolated site) the appropriate site for an exclusively subsidized housing development?

Some years ago I worked with Jim Drummond, Fred Windover and many others in an effort that ultimately became Proprietors Field. One of the things we learned as we studied and evaluated the issues associated with affordable — subsidized — housing was the strong view expressed from all quarters — professional planners, housing experts and affected citizen — that subsidized housing should be integrated fully into the community. It should not be set off in remote or isolated locations. The location should facilitate the residents being fully incorporated in the life of the community. This concept was advanced not just to avoid any stigma associated with subsidized housing being set off by itself, but, more importantly, to help create a diverse community where all citizens contribute their experience and energy and be a vital part of the community. The success of Proprietors Field and the Church Street apartments confirm the validity of such integration.

It has been advocated by some that a 40-unit subsidized housing development at the Lowry property would enable duplication of the experience of the Spruces. But, remember the Spruces is not subsidized housing, each unit is individually owned, not rental units as proposed for the Lowry property. The location of the Spruces on Main Street, with a social center and other common facilities — not proposed for the Lowry development — was certainly not isolated, visually or physically, from the larger community.

Second, in my view, what confirms the premature nature of the the conflict between open space and affordable housing is that there has been no serious analysis of the costs associated with developing the Lowry property much less is there any evidence whether expending those costs would result in a housing development that would be viable and sustainable for 75-100 years.

Without that analysis the citizens of Williamstown cannot make an informed decision.

For instance, what are the estimates of the cost to build a new road meeting the code specifications required for acceptance by the town, the estimates to put in sewer and water, the estimates to provide utilities, the estimates of the cost of construction, etc.?

All of these costs are costs to taxpayers — federal, state and local — and without these estimates we simply have no idea whether the project is viable.

Third, the proposal provided to the town calls for 40 structures — so-called "Irene Cottages" — to be built. It is unclear whether such structures have ever been deployed as a housing development expected to last many decades (a minimum expectation if conservation land is to be taken for such purpose) or whether any citizens would find them suitable.

A prudent business and risk-mitigation strategy would be to build one or two such structures on suitable lots in town, test their acceptability and suitability, before making a taxpayer investment in 40 such units in a remote location.

Fourth, just as there has been very little analysis of the cost and sustainability of the Lowry proposal, there has been no analysis of alternatives, other than to dismiss them out of hand. Yet the town owns several properties (that satisfy the lessons described above) that would appear to have real possibilities. These include the Photech site that has been proposed for housing before; undeveloped land at the General Cable site; and the old town garage site. These sites need to be evaluated equally with Lowry. Among other benefits developing any or all of these sites, even partially, would contribute to recovering properties in town which are continuing to decay and degrade, not just themselves, but surrounding neighborhoods. At the minimum, the citizens of the town deserve to have comparable analysis of these possibilities in order to make an informed decision.

Now let's turn to the question of the conservation status of the Lowry property and the reason a two-thirds vote of the town is required to remove that status. Prior to the 1970s, development efforts — especially by governments — often considered public open space lands (parks, agricultural land, wildlife preserves and the like) as a source of cheap land. The result was often sprawl and patchwork development with high taxpayer-borne service costs.

Consequently, and in response to public pressure, steps were taken at all levels of government to assure that such public lands were taken only where an alternative compelling public purpose required it. Thus, in Massachusetts the two-thirds vote requirement.

In our context, it means all alternatives have been analyzed and found not feasible, that there is substantial evidence the alternative project will be viable and serve the compelling purpose desired — that is, people will in fact desire to live in the development — and that it will represent a prudent investment of taxpayer dollars. In short, that the project has a high probability of success, not just a hope.

Subsidized housing in our country has had a high failure rate, especially those projects that are set off, isolated and structurally homogeneous. The lesson of Proprietors Field is that subsidized housing integrated in the larger community works. That is rock-solid evidence. We know what works. Experimenting with a project that is more akin to failed publicly assisted housing is not worth the risk of the loss of already dedicated open space and agricultural land, especially when there are publicly owned sites in town in desperate need of investment and development.

I therefore urge the town to vote no on Article II* and thereby cause the town to evaluate several possibilities that can result in a win-win, rather than a bitter win-lose outcome that will divide the town unnecessarily.
 

Tom Jorling
Williamstown
April 8, 2013

*Article II would transfer 10.5 acres of the Lowry property's 30.5 acres to the control of the Selectmen for use for affordable housing.

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