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Berkshire Town Awarded Federal Dollars to Relocate Residents of Storm Damaged Mobile Home Park

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A Berkshire town has received more than $6 million in federal funds to assist in relocating residents of a mobile home park  torn apart by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, but there’s still much debate within the community on how the town should move forward with relocation plans.

Much of the Spruces Mobile Home Park in Williamstown was flooded and destroyed by the remnants of Hurricane Irene in August of 2011. A community of more than 200 habitable mobile homes was reduced to only 65, and many of the low-income elderly and retired residents were forced to relocate. Many damaged homes still remain unoccupied.

Last week, the town of Williamstown received more than $6 million from FEMA through a Hazzard Mitigation Grant to purchase the damaged park from current owners Morgan Management, demolish the remaining structures, relocate the residents, and build new replacement housing on another site in town.

Town Manager Peter Fohlin said that the destruction of the Spruces proves that building new housing is a must, because Williamstown has become a more difficult place for lower-income families to find suitable housing.

And while many see the need for the housing, the issue remains on where it’s to be located. The town has considered building on 10 acres of land owned by the town since 1955. However, the land, known as the Lowry Property, has been under conservation restriction since 1987. Groups including the Friends of Williamstown Conservation Lands oppose development on land they’d like to see remain protected. A position statement by the town’s Agricultural Committee posted online says that “developing the Lowry property for housing would result in a net loss of farmland for Williamstown.”

But Catherine Yamamoto, chair of the town’s Affordable Housing Committee, supports the plan to develop the Lowry property, which she said is the most suitable place in Williamstown to develop given its location. Yamamoto said that the residents of Williamstown are at a crossroads on deciding the future of the town.

"We have the opportunity as a town to create a new community that will allow more people of limited means to live in town," Yamamoto said. "The residents of this town have to decide if that is something want or something they do not want."

A special town meeting will be this month for community residents to vote on what course of action the town will take next. But Town manager Peter Fohlin said a formal plan hasn’t yet been drafted for residents to vote on.

"There won't be a formal plan for people to thoughtfully discuss on April 24th," said Fohlin.

And even residents of the Spruces in the park itself are divided on relocation.

Lucy Sherrill is a member of Save the Spruces, a coalition of residents who’d like to remain in the park.

"We woud like to stabilize and expand this community and have it remain a vital part of the Town of Williamstown," said Sherrill.

But others remaining in the park, including Carol Zingarelli, said she supports the town’s plan to relocate the residents.

"I am 100 percent behind it at this point," said Zingarelli.

The special meeting that will allow voters determine the future for the development of the conservation-restricted Lowry property, and also other properties will be held on April 24th at 7:30 pm.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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