The Berkshire Eagle

August 7, 2007
Section: Local

By Clarence Fanto, Special to The Eagle

Tuesday, August 07 WILLIAMSTOWN —

It's called the Village Beautiful, a term coined by a mid-19th century resort manager, and it's no exaggeration. Nestled in a valley of hills and dales between the Hoosac and Taconic ranges, one of the oldest settled towns in Berkshire County combines an idyllic natural setting with an array of blue-chip cultural and educational resources rivaled by few towns in the state or the nation. With a leading Ivy College college on an historic campus, two highly regarded art museums, two libraries with extensive collections, a prestigious regional theater and numerous preservation sites tended by the Williamstown Rural Land Foundation, the storybook town with one traffic light and a compact Spring Street shopping block is an academic and arts center that has drawn a growing number of retirees and second-home owners — many are Williams College alumni. The town's population of just over 8,000, which has remained stable in recent years, includes nearly 2,200 students.
At the same time, the town is beset by challenges involving the extent of growth and development, and the delicate balance between the need to attract newcomers and the widespread desire to retain the semi-rural, bucolic charms of a cherished landscape.
Some town residents also face the strain imposed by the highest average property tax bills in the county, averaging over $4,000 a year based on a combined town and fire district tax rate of $11.92. A property revaluation is pending in 2008-09. The effort to identify sites for housing that people can afford is ongoing, without any obvious solution.

Although the earliest settlers, sentinels from Fort Massachusetts four miles to the east, began arriving in the heavily forested wilderness in 1750 from the last outpost of the northern line of defense during the French and Indian wars, the newly surveyed West Hoosuck Plantation was not established until the first meeting of proprietors on Dec. 5, 1753. A dozen frame "regulation" houses had been constructed along Main Street on lots offered for sale by the General Court (the Legislature) of the Masachusetts Bay Colony — some were purchased by land speculators.
According to records compiled by the House of Local History, the plantation had been established in order to settle and fortify the remote northwestern outpost of the colony along an Indian route to help protect towns to the east and south. Another goal was to prevent Dutch settlers in nearby New York from crossing the boundary into Massachusetts.

In 1756, at the site of the Williams Inn, a blockhouse, fort and stockade were built to shelter townsfolk from a series of ambushes, arson fires and scalpings stemming from the French and Indian War.

More settlers flocked to the town after peace was declared in 1760 and agriculture became the dominant livelihood. The town also saw the development of small saw, grist and fueling mills; craftsmen, doctors, lawyers, cobblers, carpenters, blacksmiths and shopkeepers joined the earlier settlers.

The community, little more than a hamlet at this point, was incorporated and renamed Williamstown in 1765 after Col. Ephraim Williams's will required the name change in return for his estate's bequest for the creation of a free school, which opened in 1791. By 1793, the first 15 students had been admitted, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts granted a charter to Williams College. Students call themselves "Ephs" (pronounced eefs) in honor of the college's benefactor.

Prosperity resulted from dairy farming, sheep herding and wool production, along with the small mills and shops. A group of Williams students formed the vanguard of the Foreign Missionary movement during an 1806 prayer meeting held under a haystack to provide refuge from a thunderstorm. Under the leadership of Williams professor Albert Hopkins, the Alpine Club was developed in 1863 to foster outdoor exploration, camping and mountain climbing, the beginning of a tradition that survives to the present day.

By the mid- to late-1800s, industry spurred by the Industrial Revolution and rail transport flourished; examples included the Walley Mill and Williamstown Manufacturing Company (Station Mill), both textile producers, and A. Loop and Co. (Water Street Mill), which manufactured twine.
Tourism was another growth industry in that period, with two resorts — the ritzy Idlewild Hotel in South Williamstown and the Greylock Hotel at the corner of North and Main streets. Greylock manager Henry Tague coined the phrase "Williamstown the Village Beautiful," and the area's attractions were enhanced by the development of Sand Springs (dating back to the Indian era) as a grand resort and eventually a sanitarium and bottling plant for spring water. For a time, Sand Springs Ginger Ale was a well-known soft drink.

Farming continued to thrive; the experimental Mount Hope Farm, encompassing more than 1,300 acres, pioneered the use of genetic techniques to improve the yield of potatoes as well as the production of egg-laying poultry and dairy cattle. The farm became a major local employer.
The college, continuing a steady expansion fueled by the admission of women starting in the 1970s, remains the largest employer by far, with a combined total of more than 300 faculty members plus 775 administrative and support staffers.

Other employers — past and present — include The Clark, Carrol Cable, Steinerfilm, the Berkshire Ivy Guild greenhouses, the Mount Greylock Regional School District, Sweet Brook Nursing Home and the adjoining Sweetbrook assisted-living facility, Berkshire Capital Investors, Litchfield Financial, Village Ventures and Williamstown Medical Associates.

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, opened in 1955, has undergone dramatic expansion, with more planned in the decade ahead. The center for Impressionist paintings (including 30 Renoirs) and many other artworks has become a major engine for tourism in the area, along with the Williams College Museum of Art (with significant holdings of 18th and 19th century art) and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which has attracted top actors and directors to its summer season. Seasonal attractions in town include the annual Williamstown Jazz Festival and Film Festival, and the Holiday Walk weekend in December.

Williams College offers many cultural events open to the general public (readings, lectures, plays, films, concerts), usually at no cost, as well as an extensive schedule of athletic events. Townspeople and alumni can use athletic facilities if they purchase an annual pass costing $205 for an individual and $320 for families. Residents can audit classes at no charge if they obtain the professor's permission, and they can also withdraw books from the college library.

The Images Cinema, a nonprofit operated by a board of cineastes, survives as a single-screen home for quality American and foreign films as well as special events.

Outdoor recreation abounds at Margaret Lindley Park (offering public swimming), two 18-hole golf courses, tennis courts, the Hopkins Forest, Sheep Hill, and Mount Greylock, whose foothills lie in Williamstown.  Cross-country skiing is a major wintertime avocation.

Williamstown was named 18th best American Small Town, the only Massachusetts community in the book "The 100 Best Small Towns in America" by Norman Crampton. The town also is cited regularly in other "best of" guides and lists.

However, it's relatively isolated; there are no interstate highways closer than 50 minutes away, the state highways — routes 2, 7 and 43 — are two-lane, and the nearest international airport is more than an hour distant. As a result, some believe the infusion of new business into Williamstown has been impeded.

Major attention by town government and the public has long centered around the future of the Photech Mill site, originally built in the mid-1800s and host to a textile mill and a paper mill before Photech Inc., a manufacturer of photographic film and paper, abandoned the facility in 1990. Hazardous materials cleanups were supervised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration in 1997; a followup town effort in 2002 yielded the removal of additional abestos contamination and metals-contaminated soils. The property is being developed by the Kansas-based Eby Group as an assisted-living facility, Bickford Senior Living, due to open next summer with 46 units for the elderly.

Williamstown is an example of the "strong town manager" form of government, according to Select Board Chairman David Rempell. Since this gives Town Manager Peter L. Fohlin major hands-on responsibility, local officials and residents were greatly relieved after he recently turned down an offer to be the town manager in Middleborough.

Rempell praises Fohlin for his "excellent job in relations with town government and employees. He's highly regarded by all." Rempell agrees that the town manager "really runs the town" day to day, while the board focuses on policy decisions.

"As town manager and town administrator jobs go, this is probably the best job in the state and is widely recognized as such," explained Fohlin in an interview last week.

Fohlin described the Middleborough post as an "unprecedented challenge" because of budgetary issues and the implications of the townspeople's vote in late July to approve development of a casino; he said the job would have paid "a great deal more" than Williamstown. But in the end, "We didn't quite sync (with each other)," he said, adding that he seriously doubts another competitive opportunity will come his way. He emphasized that Middleborough was the only alternative he seriously considered during his seven years in Williamstown — "it's very, very seldom that opportunities come up in this business that are desirable enough to even think about leaving."

Fohlin's current challenges are no picnic, of course. He points out that "the town has become accustomed to a revenue stream that depends on $16 million in new growth each year. Any significant reduction in that number will require townspeople to make difficult choices about which programs in the schools or in government they can do without, unless taxpayers want to make up the difference."

Expressing pride in the fact that, during his tenure, the town's annual local tax increases have been limited to 2 1/2 percent ("with the exception of one year when the state bailed out on all communities and cut local aid drastically"), Fohlin asserts that the town "intends to stand by" that limitation in the future. He notes a significant contributing factor in the tax rate and the average bill is the presence of extensive tax-exempt property in town, (such as Williams and The Clark), as well as tax-reduced property including land that has been placed into a variety of open-space restrictions.

"Those losses are made up by the taxpayers," he says.

Questioned about the apparent gulf in the viewpoints of pro-development forces and those who favor limits, Fohlin took a careful middle ground: "I don't think there is a consensus on the development issue, but I do think there is a majority who feels as though they like Williamstown exactly as it is, and I wouldn't call them anti-development but I would call them protectionist."

He cited an apparent agreement that would prevent development of property on Northwest Hill Road, turning major portions of it over to Williams College and the Williamstown Rural Land Foundation as "a good example of a community making choices." The result is more property being taken off the tax rolls and "a lost economic opportunity in that the tax revenue associated with that development will not come into town coffers. As a result, the burden on taxpayers will be higher as a result of that decision, and that's an outcome the community will live have to live with."

Another property on Northwest Hill Road that may be targeted by developers is the 112-acre Mason Farm, which went on the market May 1 for $20 million. The owners, a couple in their 80s, have expressed interest in locating a buyer to maintain stewardship of the land, which includes spectacular mountain vistas and is virtually surrounded by Hopkins Forest, but their concerns are said to include the health and financial requirements of their family. Before the Masons acquired the property 57 years ago, it was owned by the historian Henry Steele Commager.

Fohlin maintains that he's running a tight ship at Town Hall — "we're constantly looking for economies and to be more cost-effective, and over seven years, that's reaped benefits." He observes that town employees pay a higher portion of their health insurance than in most communities and in the school district, and that town government is "aggressive about energy conservation" in order to reduce expenses.

He's upbeat about the relationship between the college and the town, asserting that Williams "contributes more to the town than it brags about or that the people recognize." Nonetheless, he takes the view that there is "more they could do for us, and more we could do for them. We have an unrealized potential for the town and the college to show other college communities how to collaborate and succeed together."

Williams has funded an endowment for the town's elementary school and was a major contributor to the recent renovation project, Fohlin points out. "What the college worries about, and what they should worry about, is using its checkbook to dominate the town, and it tries very hard not to do that, while working very effectively with us on every project."

The town manager candidly admits that "one of the places where we have not lived up to our obligation" is to help identify sites for "housing that people can afford." He calls that quest the same as any other real-estate challenge — "location, location, location. All this town and any other town needs to do is to identify parcels of property that can be used. You must rethink your zoning and you must rethink your model, and you have to think of it the way Haley Village and Colonial Village were built after World War II; modest-sized houses on modest-sized lots, and over the last 60 years those houses have been enhanced and have grown and grown in value."

According to Fohlin, "If we want housing that people can afford, you can't do it with 3,000 sqare feet on three-acre lots. You have to get back to basics." He cites a recent "lost opportunity" at the Sweet Farm subdivision on Henderson Road, where the property was turned into "huge lots for huge houses." He sees potential if land at the Waubeeka Golf Course on Route 7 becomes available for purchase. In fact, Fohlin describes "plenty of open land in private ownership in this town that could be committed to a Haley Village-style development if the community got behind the effort. There's land out there that isn't for sale but could be bought."

The income guidepost for so-called "affordable housing" in Williamstown is $40,000 or less, Fohlin says, "and there are a lot of people who make that amount or less. These are people not in poverty but who are in need."

Now that he's firmly ensconced for the next few years, Fohlin has a wish list of priorities. He wants to see a redevelopment on the west side of Spring Street, in partnership with property owner Mark Paresky (a recent fire destroyed a building housing a cafe and a Subway franchise), as well as a rejuvenation of Water Street with the help of Bart Mitchell, the new owner of the Cable Mills building, and adjacent property owners.

Fohlin also hopes to work with Williams College for a redesign and reconstruction of its athletic facilities "in a way that is complementary to the business community, specifically to include a parking structure," and he stresses that these three goals involving the downtown area should be "coordinated and interconnected" to achieve maximum benefits for the community.

The design and construction of a new police station to replace the current, cramped 40-year-old facility is also a top priority. Fohlin agrees that "it should have been reconstructed 20 years ago, and I don't intend to leave Williamstown without raising the issue. It would be unconscionable to leave or retire without giving it a good public debate."

In Fohlin's view, it can be "difficult to get public support for a police station because a majority of residents don't use the facility, but they have to understand that the people who protect public safety need it. He says the new police station would be attached at the opposite end of the existing municipal building, which is a converted Williams College fraternity house. Fohlin has suggested a two-story, 3,000 square-foot facility that could cost up to $4 million; the town could apply for a portion of the $2 million fund set aside by the state for such purposes.

Rempell, the Select Board chairman, calls a new police station "a clear need" for the community and a goal shared by a consensus of the board.

While the Mount Greylock Regional School District and the town's Elementary School are highly regarded, Fohlin cites declining enrollment as making it more difficult to "maintain a quality educational experience because the flexibility of course offerings and the cost per student and per class become more of a challenge." He views the steady decline in grade-school enrollment, ultimately impacting the high school, as "intimately related to the challenge of housing that people can afford. People who can afford to live in the town are farther along in their professional lives and, by and large, past their childbearing years. If we want to have a vibrant community and an exciting educational experience, we need to work on the entire socio-economic model." Currently, young couples with families can't afford to move into vacated housing, and Fohlin says he is amazed to see smaller houses in cramped neighborhoods being torn down and replaced by homes double their size.

Mount Greylock Regional was ranked this spring by Newsweek magazine as 413th out of 1,300 top public high schools nationwide. Only 19 Massachusetts schools made the list, and Mount Greylock was the only one west of Worcester.

Schools Superintendent William Travis has expressed the hope that the district's member towns (which also include New Ashford, Lanesborough and Hancock) will respond by boosting their support.

"Budget difficulties are what people have been focused on, and some parents and community members are worried about what we're going to cut," he said. "Some are worried that what we offer is too expensive, but those people might not have paid much attention to the outcome. I think this says the outcome is excellent, and now it has been recognized against standards applied to all 50 states."

As a resident of nearly 20 years and former principal of the elementary school, Rempell calls Williamstown "a wonderful community to live in; it's a small town that is beautiful with an extraordinary quality of life." He cites the college as "setting the tone" for the community. "We have an educational institution considered one of the best in the world sitting in a small town, and that creates a culture that mandates the importance of education."

The former Cable Mills building is gaining about $1.5 million in Community Preservation Act funding to support affordable housing, historical preservation and open space, according to Rempell. Of the 80 projected condominium units there, 12 would be "affordable," he says, adding that "anytime you can add something like this to a community, it's a bonus."

Rempell shares Fohlin's concern over housing costs as "one of the most important issues — many in the community are very sensitive about it, everything depends on the vision people have for the community they live in. There is somewhat of a heterogenuous mixture, a number of families who do very well and a number who are struggling. It's not as much of an ethnic mixture as I might ideally like, but I like it as a socio-economic mixture. I'm afraid of losing that."

Calling it a "complicated issue," Rempell reports an open-housing residential bylaw is under consideration with the hope that it would encourage "more alternative types of development, so we can address the issue of who can afford to live in town, and who can't."

Acknowledging that "business expansion hasn't happened to the extent that we would have hoped," Rempell asserts that "like every community with a decreasing number of kids, and a population that is not expanding, we have some issues we need to face as a community honestly and creatively. That's what I hope the conversation will focus on as we move on as a town."
The primary topics of that conversation involve a vision for the future, including an exploration of alternatives available for development. Rempell wonders whether the town's zoning bylaws are the type "that attract people to think about coming in here and doing something" or might discourage them.

He says a study committee will explore the financial future for Mount Greylock Regional as well as the elementary school, and he foresees "opportunities that may arise between the college and the town."

"Like every community, we have some challenges ahead of us," Rempell concedes. "I'm optimistic that we have people who will come up with rational decisions that will help us grow positively. It will take hard work. Should there be a reconfiguration of public education in the area? The one thing we don't want to lose is quality."

As one of the widely acknowledged jewels of the region, how Williamstown sorts out its challenges will be closely watched by the rest of the county as a potential model for other communities sharing concerns over slow growth, stagnant or declining population, an exodus of younger residents, as well as a housing mix and property-tax burden that excludes less-prosperous members of the society.

(c) 2007 The Berkshire Eagle. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.