The Board of Selectmen was unanimous in voting to table the land articles at Wednesday's special town meeting. Left, voters line up to speak their piece.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Wednesday's special town meetings decided by large majorities to take a "timeout" before deciding measures that would affect the future of town-owned land being considered for developing affordable housing.
Following the advice of three town boards — the Selectmen, the Conservation Commission and the Affordable Housing Trust — a majority of 776 voters in the Mount Greylock Regional High School gymnasium decided to consider Articles 2 and 3 of the 7:30 special town meeting (meeting 2) in one motion and take no action on either one.
The vote to table the two contested articles passed by a margin of 555-172. A second vote to table the lone article on the warrant of the 7:25 special town meeting (recessed to take action on the 7:30 meeting) passed 463-38.
About 17 percent of the town's 4,600 registered voters attended the meetings — high by town meeting standards but not near the record of more than 1,000 who attended a meeting about a decade ago to consider changes to the town's water line, Town Clerk Mary Courtney Kennedy said.
Wednesday's conflicting articles — one to take one-third of the 30-acre Lowry property out of conservation to develop subsidized housing and one to seek conservation restrictions for all of Lowry and the 139-acre Burbank property — are still alive. And chairmen of the three panels recommending the "timeout" said each article will be put to the town after various committees have performed more study.
The organizer of a citizen's petition that drove Wednesday's special town meeting left the event frustrated by the process and the fact she was not able to present the results of a study already conducted by she and fellow opponents of developing Lowry.
"I think it was a very unfair meeting," Sarah Thurston said. "I was called personally by the town moderator and told that we would have 10 minutes before any of the articles were discussed to present opening statements, and we never had that opportunity.
"We have been working tirelessly on plans, numbers ... and we were planning on presenting all of those things tonight in our opening statement, which we never had a chance to read."
Thurston represents the Stratton Hills Condominium Association — an abutter to the Lowry property. She also is joined by a coalition of residents from all over town eager to see Lowry protected as open space and agricultural land.
On Wednesday, her group distributed handouts depicting development options for other town-owned sites as well as a cost analysis that concludes developing Lowry would cost at least 31 percent more per unit than developing either the old town garage site (59 Water St.) or the former PhoTech Mill on Cole Avenue.
The chairman of the Affordable Housing Trust, who is on record saying brownfield developments would be an inappropriate alternative to offer former residents of the Spruces Mobile Home Park, said Wednesday that the trust would welcome a timeout to study all options.
"I think we'll have, in the coming weeks and months, an unprecedented number of joint meetings of committees," Stanley Parese told the special town meeting before it voted. "I can't stress enough the decisions ahead will not be easy, and that's because the problem we face is not easy."
Selectmen Chairman David Rempell agreed.
"We expect to have many community conversations so we all are as informed as possible, and hence can make the best decision for our community," Rempell said. "We knew it would take some time, but it was necessary to move forward in a rational manner.
"[Tabling the articles] will allow the town to do exactly this."
"Community conversations" may not be all that is needed.
The Affordable Housing Trust and Affordable Housing Committee — the two lead town panels looking at the issue — frequently have been criticized for not obtaining enough expert analysis of the Lowry property before suggesting it be used for housing.
Sarah Thurston was frustrated that her group was not allowed to make its case on protecting the Lowry property.
The housing panels also were criticized as recently as Tuesday night for spending $5,200 to have Guntlow & Associates do a very preliminary study of the site.
Parese said Wednesday he foresees that the trust and committee might spend more money in the months ahead to study a property it may never see removed from conservation.
"The answer is yes, but we'll be very, very thoughtful about how we spend that money," Parese said.
Longview Terrace resident Robert Scerbo, an ally of Thurston's, said after Wednesday's meeting that the town might be better served looking at the preliminary research his group has done before spending any time or money on a parcel (Lowry) that is not suited for affordable housing development.
"We've done for the past six months what we feel the Affordable Housing Committee and Affordable Housing Trust should have been doing — communicating with the (funding) agencies," Scerbo said. "Had they had those conversations that we had with the agencies, they could have known coming out of the gate that to pursue a course that was the Lowry property was, no pun intended, a road to nowhere.
"Funding doesn't exist for the development they're proposing.
"I share that from my perspective of 35 years developing real estate and doing affordable housing site selection. There are very defined criteria that make your project come to the top and be noticed and attract the funding. Lowry just isn't one of those properties."
Scerbo said the town missed an opportunity Wednesday night to hear the research that he and his group have done and start a communitywide conversation about the potential use of town-owned land.
Thurston went a step further.
"I feel like this was another one of their tricks," she said. "It was another trick up their sleeve. And it's very unfortunate because the information is not getting out there."
Williamstown.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue. Name-calling, personal attacks, libel, slander or foul language is not allowed. All comments are reviewed before posting and will be deleted or edited as necessary.
We chose as a town to be rational last night. Quite satisfying, no matter the outcome of Lowry! Perhaps now we can have rational discussions on Open Space, Affordable Housing, and our tax base in light of those issues which effect our tax bills, quality of life, and our mental construct of what it means to be a community and who lives here.
I don't see this as a watershed moment for people that "want" development and a curtailment on Open Space, rather it seems to me to be an opportunity to fully understand our cost of living given the nature of what we place off limits to taxation for many varied reasons. It's also a time to reaffirm what we value. Given all of what we see on a daily basis, I would find it difficult to live in a town that had hardening of the arteries. Every generation has a duty to look back and see what has been successful, and what hasn't and plan forward! The concept of "perpetuity" is as flawed as advocating that planning makes perfect. So what do we do with Open Space? Look at it. Study it in the wild, Put it in context and look at it as it should be, and not as something that is immutable - we know better than to do that. What do we gain in a world of the now, and what can it offer in the tomorrow? Policies and sacred cows need to be reviewed from time to time.
Why has it been so hard to initiate this conversation until now? Well, the answer to that was in the courageous nature of a fine Williamstown woman, Sarah Thurston. Regardless of how we framed the issue last night in our minds, it was she who awoke us to the larger conversation about "who are we now as a people, in 2013?" I can't think of a better conversation to have. We should give ourselves room to hear every opinion that we can, with permission to include the difficult questions. Precedent should not be ignored but it is not sacred. We need to hold check our emotions.
I want in particular to thank Andy Hogeland, Tom Sheldon, and Hank Art along with the entire Conservation Commission for taking what I think was a correct position and a rather bold one given how we prize our living standard in Williamstown and how it is defined so much by land.
A good check up now and then is healthy. If we do it for ourselves personally from time to time, why would we not do it for us as a whole? This is such an opportunity if we do not waste it. We needn't fear this process. Democracy works best when everyone is engaged.
Long live the Town!
-Dan Gendron, speaking on my own behalf and not that of the Williamstown Finance Committee.