Town continues master planning

Residents of Williamstown have returned their Master Planning surveys to the town, thereby setting the groundwork for a study of the town’s newest priorities and problems. How the survey results will affect the College is as yet unknown, although the greater quality of life issues that residents addressed certainly have an impact on the daily life of residents, students, faculty and staff.

Last spring, the town mailed a questionnaire with 120 multiple-choice questions to 3,000 town residents. Respondents returned 1,006 surveys, from which the town’s Master Planning Committee compiled and interpreted the results.

The surveys covered a variety of subjects, including education, land management, transportation, town services, recreation and economic development. There was also a written section of the survey, where residents were asked to list three changes they would make to the town.

Master planning is done every 10 years, said Anita Barker, a member of the Master Planning Committee. Changing circumstances in Williamstown — including the economic position of its residents, the financial situation at Williams College, and other factors — all necessitate a fairly regular update of the town’s goals and problems that must be addressed.

The recommendation made in the written section of the survey that would financially impact the College most directly was a suggestion that the College give the town a fixed monetary donation each year. Because of Massachusetts state laws and tax codes, educational institutions do not have to pay real estate taxes on property the College uses to further its educational mission. In a place as small as Williamstown, where the College is a primary landowner and employer, the lack of revenues from such a significant part of the community adversely affects town management.

The College is Williamstown’s largest taxpayer, handing over $800,000 to the town last year. However, that amount is small compared to the money the College would be giving each year if all its property were taxed.

In the past, the College has recognized the town’s predicament and assisted in various aspects of town development. According to Peter Fohlin, the town manager, the College contributed $775,000 to the $3.5 million restoration of Spring Street and $1.5 million to the $15 million elementary school currently being built. The College also gives money for more general town functions, but the town never knows how much money it will receive in a given year.

“I don’t think there’s a definitive way to say the College does or does not pay its way,” Fohlin said. “I think [the town] has direct, irrefutable evidence of the College’s increasing willingness. . .to be a good corporate citizen.”

Barker agreed, citing President Morton Owen Schapiro’s sympathy toward a proposal to have the College donate a fixed amount to the town each year.

“We feel it would be nice [for the College to give an annual donation] because it is very wealthy,” Barker said. “The College giving [a variable amount of] money each year doesn’t help us plan [the town budget] from year to year,” she said.

The College’s increasing financial security has placed it in a position to help Williamstown, Barker said. Schapiro has seemed receptive to the idea of a fixed annual donation, she said, but she has not found the Trustees of the College to be as sympathetic.

Barker speculated that part of the reason why the Trustees have not reacted as positively is the fact that they do not live in Williamstown.

But, if Schapiro did seem sympathetic to the fixed donation idea, it seems he has since tempered his opinion.

“I think supporting certain projects is much better for the town than for us to give a fixed amount that gets folded into the regular town budget,” Schapiro said.

Schapiro’s response fits with Fohlin’s perception of the College’s responsibility to itself as well as the town. As Fohlin explained, Williams ultimately gives money to the town for the purpose of furthering the College’s own educational mission. Such projects as the elementary school and renovation of Spring Street help attract prospective faculty and students to Williams.

Beyond the issue of donations from the College, there were a number of other important aspects of planning addressed in the survey. Many residents’ suggestions revolved around the state of Spring Street, particularly with regard to parking.

Currently, the town faces a parking crunch, as there are not nearly enough spaces to satisfy demand on Spring Street. The implication, both Barker and Fohlin suggest, is that a garage will be built somewhere in Williamstown — not necessarily on Spring Street — within the next five years.

“I don’t think there’s any prospect for increased parking horizontally,” Fohlin said. “In five years, you will see a garage in Williamstown.” The garage planned for the Performing Arts Center will not fill the town’s need.

“[The town] doesn’t have control over parking [on Spring Street,]” Barker said, because the College owns most of the property on the street, including the public lot at the end.

Possibilities for town parking include the former Will-iamstown Department of Public Works (DPW) site on Water Street, but Fohlin said that he thinks the property is too valuable to be used for public parking.

Not only is the property valuable, but it is also removed from Spring Street. Indeed, the town has grappled with how to link Spring Street and Water Street to provide a more cohesive commercial district. It faces the problem, however, of College property in between the two streets.

Barker said Latham Street could potentially be developed to provide a link, but the College has been buying property on the street, expecting to use the properties to expand athletic facilities sometime in the future. In addition, she said, “I’m not sure how much retail [space Williamstown] can handle.”

The set of circumstances involving parking, the connection of Spring Street and Water Street, and town financing require the town to work closely with the College. And, by and large, Fohlin and Barker have good things to say about their working relationship with Schapiro and the College in general.

Indeed, the two must work hand in hand to make sure Williamstown remains a viable commercial and residential location.

As Barker observed, “the College pretty much has carte-blanche [to build what it wants and decide what it wants], and [the town] just has to trust it. [But] President Schapiro lived here for 10 or 12 years; he has a sense of how the College and town should look.”

Other ideas generated by the survey included a proposal to increase bike paths along the Green River. Fohlin said that citizen groups are actively pursuing the possibility and that he “doesn’t see why those [paths] won’t come to fruition.”

Barker also mentioned the availability of state and federal grant money that may be used for town projects. Fohlin did not comment on whether grants were available or whether the town would seek any outside grants.