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Williamstown Housing Committee Under New Leadership After Three Resign

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The housing authority in the small town of Williamstown, Massachusetts is under new leadership after three of its members, including its chair, resigned.

The formal resignations of three Affordable Housing Committee members are on the agenda for the town’s Selectmen meeting Monday night. Committee chair Catherine Yamamoto is among those stepping down after serving for 10 years on the committee, including the past three as chair.

“I resigned after a series of disagreements with the Board of Selectmen over the last three years,” said Yamamoto.

The latest decision was a 3-2 vote by the Board of Selectmen April 15th to go against the housing committee’s unanimous suggestion of a proposal to develop a total of 85 units on two properties. Instead, the Selectmen chose to go with a single site, 46-unit plan submitted by Boston’s Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development and Pittsfield’s Berkshire Housing Development Corp. Select Chair Jane Allen voted in the majority, raising concerns about the likelihood of 85 units being rented.

“I think you have to be realistic about the number of units that will be marketable and that will be sustainable,” said Allen.

Yamamoto says the committee felt the town should maximize its opportunity to build as much affordable housing as possible on both town-owned sites on Water Street and Cole Avenue.

“We believe firmly that there are a good number of people in the North Berkshire area who would fit the criteria for both developments and we had no question that the apartments would be rented,” said Yamamoto.

In the end, the Cole Avenue site was chosen. Van Ellet has been named interim chair of the Affordable Housing Committee.

“There’s been a long standing need I think for affordable housing all types; for families and for seniors,” said Ellet.

In April 2011, Tropical Storm Irene flooded and destroyed much of the town’s Spruces Mobile Home Park, leaving roughly 60 of 225 mobile homes salvageable. FEMAawarded the town $6.1 million to help relocate the estimated 275 people living in the park. The town is now leasing the park from Morgan Management. The leasing allows people to continue living in the park, where the floodplain makes it unsustainable in the longterm, until the town takes ownership in early 2016, at which point a conservation restriction would be placed on the land three months later. Allen says many have moved to Williamstown’s Pines Lodge Mobile Home Park or similar neighborhoods in nearby towns after a plan to develop a town-owned site known as the Lowry Property failed.

“That was met by opposition from the neighbors, opposition from the farmers and opposition from open space and conservationists,” said Allen.

As for the recent approval of the lesser number of units, Allen points out the town has earmarked $2.6 million of the FEMA grant for the development of 40 affordable senior housing units at Highland Woods to be available as early as next spring. She adds ground will soon be broken on 13 market-rate units at Cable Mills. Yamamoto says she and the other resigning committee members, Vice Chair Charles Bonenti and Secretary Cheryl Shanks, did not come to their decisions lightly.

“I hope that future Selectmen will address the issue with a little greater understanding and more conviction,” said Yamamoto.

No one has been appointed to fill the vacant seats. Committee members’ yearly terms end in June. The committee and Select Chair Allen are considering rethinking the one-year terms.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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