Community considers affordable housing in recent town forum

Last Wednesday, a majority of over 776 voters sat down at a special town meeting in the gym at Mount Greylock Regional High School and voted to table two conflicting articles concerning the future of affordable housing in Williamstown. Sarah Thurston of the Stratton Hills Condominiums, which abut the land-conserved Lowry property, filed a petition to hold the public Lowry and Burbank properties into irreversible conservation. The petition forced the special town meeting. Town committees are currently considering the Lowry property as a possible location for a future affordable housing project. Thurston and others whose land abuts the property stand to lose use of the land and property value. Concerned citizens filed a counter-warrant to immediately wrest 10 acres from the 30 acre plot for affordable housing without the approval or necessary investigation by the Affordable Housing Committee. Voters were lobbied, then, to attend the special meeting in great numbers and table both measures.

The issue of affordable housing in Williamstown is pressing for the select board, not just because there are currently so few options, but also because the success of affordable housing necessarily hinges on the fate of the residents of largest previous affordable housing option, the Spruces Mobile Home Park. In late March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program awarded the town $6.13 million toward acquiring and demolishing the Spruces. The Spruces sits in an unsafe floodplain of the Hoosic River, which resulted in the damage and subsequent displacement of over two-thirds of residents of Spruces households after Hurricane Irene in 2011. FEMA intends to prohibit anyone else from returning to the floodplain with this grant. In addition to purchasing and destroying the park from Morgan Management, the grant gives $1.4 million toward assisting relocating residents and $341,250 toward assisting those displaced by Irene. This leaves a $3 million balance that the select board intends to use to start developing new affordable housing.

The primary issue at stake now is finding a location for the new affordable housing development. “10 years ago, the town created a new master plan … The town voted not to extend water beyond the current village center so as not to enable sprawl,” Cheryl Shanks, professor of political science and Affordable Housing Committee member, said. Housing can only exist within the water and sewage district, and the town owns only three vacant locations within this district: Lowry, 59 Water Street and the former Photech mill on Cole Avenue. There is a 36-month deadline to spend the grant money, and “for any/every site, the town, through its committees, does engineering studies to determine material feasibility, then with that information runs cost projections, and finally, once it knows what is possible and what it would cost, hosts community discussions about the possibility of building on the site,” Shanks said

Lowry is the largest and therefore most immediately attractive site for development, but geology and engineering studies still need to be done. The Affordable Housing Committee will have a completed Housing Needs Assessment on May 7, after which time they may ask the Conservation Commission for permission to evaluate the site. Developing the Lowry property also has been met with opposition from local farmers who use the property as a hay field, Carolyn Henderson’s horse farm and those committed to maintaining open space.

Developing the former Photech Mill on Cole Avenue would change it from an eyesore into a productive space, but has been found to have soil contamination with levels of cadmium, silver and asbestos-containing materials above state standards and also sits in the Hoosic River floodplain. Additional demolition would need to be done on the lot to get rid of an old structure and would need to be used for multifamily instead of single-family development.

The old town garage at 59 Water Street is smaller than the other options and requires refurbishing its water system but offers an important bonus. “If building on it enables a walkway connection between the Pappa Charlie’s arcade/Driscoll-museum steps area and Water Street, there would be a welcoming link between the two business districts … this is our current best site,” Shanks said.

Another issue is that some Spruces residents do not wish to leave their homes. Residents and committee members are concerned that moving park residents to anything other than a similar park living situation, like a Brownfield development, may be unsatisfactory.

Now that the pressure to act on the Lowry site has been tabled, more investigation will be done in determining the best future for affordable housing in Williamstown and the fates of displaced Spruces residents.