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CDBG Task Force Minutes 8/24/09

Town of Becket
Community Development Strategy Task Force
Meeting #2 – August 24, 2009
5:00 – 7:00pm

Task Force Members:                             Berkshire Regional Planning Commission:
Rita Furlong                                            Patricia Mullins (Present)
Tony Blair                                              Thomas Matuszko (Not Present)
Stephen Labelle                                 Brian Domina (Not Present)
Madeleine Swindelhurst                          Members of the Public Present:
Sandy Sayward                                   Joan Davidson
Meredyth Babcock                                        Arthur Winston
Zina Jayne                                              Karen Karlberg                                  
Paul Campbell                                                           
Beth VanNess  (Not Present)

Order of Business

The meeting was called to order at 5:01pm by Rita Furlong, Chair.

I.    Review and Approval of August 17, 2009 Meeting Minutes
The Minutes had previously been emailed to the Task Force members.  
  • Madeleine Swindelhurst made a request that in addition to listing the members present, absent members also be listed.
  • Zina Jayne stated that the Economic Summit mentioned on page 4 of the Minutes actually occurred in Spring of 2009.
  • Joshua Lombard requested that a change be made to page 6, item #3 to include signage, parking, as associated with infrastructure.
       The Minutes were unanimously approved with the above referenced changes.

II.   Copies of the 2004 Community Development Plan
Rita Furlong stated that 3 copies of the 2004 Community Development Plan are now available to members of the Task Force for overnight sign-out from Town Hall, and that the plan contains very good documentation of the needs of the Town, especially in North Becket Village.

III. Members of the public address the Task Force
Joan Davidson, President of the Becket Art Center, and Arthur Winston, Board Member, Licensed Professional Mechanical Engineer; Ms. Davidson stated that, after 40 years in existence the Art center does not have proper lighting in the gallery.  Ms. Davidson and Mr. Winston are also concerned with energy efficiency; the existing light system is not efficient, since it is both outdated and unsuited for the use of the space.  The Becket Art Center is seeking grant funding from a number of sources and would like to install new lighting that would improve the situation in 3 ways:  (1) Separate general lighting from display lighting, (2) Convert the general lighting to more energy efficient system, and install separate low voltage lighting for artwork (3) eliminate heat from lights which increases air conditioning demand and costs.  Mr. Winston said that his preliminary estimates for replacing the existing lighting system range from $4,000 to $8,000.

Ms. Davidson mentioned that she wrote a grant application to the Central Berkshire Fund, which makes grants for Capital Improvements, but that there is a $3,000 limit to those grants.  She would like to be able to say that she has gotten additional funding from CDBG.  Tony Blair said that it is far too early in the process to say with any certainty that Becket will receive a CDBG grant, and advised Ms. Davidson that it would only be accurate to say that there will be ‘possible funding’.  Mr. Winston did say that if necessary the work could be done in piecemeal fashion as funding becomes available.  Rita Furlong suggested that Ms. Davidson also research funding opportunities under the Community Preservation Act.  Tony Blair explained that the Town will be doing an Energy Audit on Town owed buildings and requested that Mr. Winston provide information on the amount of energy currently expended at the Art Center and compare that to expected energy savings for a new system.  This information could then be included in the audit.    

IV.  Discussion on new member status: Karen Karlberg
Tony Blair introduced Karen Karlberg and stated that she had expressed a desire to serve on the Task Force.  Ms. Karlberg stated that she had not yet been sworn in, but would do so in the upcoming week.
Various Task Force materials were shared and exchanged.

V.  Discussion of successful CDBG Grant applications by nearby towns
Joshua Lombard shared an article that appeared in the Country Journal on Thursday, August 20, 2009 stating that $1.073 million in CDBG funding had been awarded to northern hill towns of Chesterfield, Cummington, Plainfield, Williamsburg and Worthington.  Items funded included:
  • 0% interest deferred payment loans for health and safety improvements to 14 private homes
  • 1st time home buyer programs
  • Installation of an elevator in senior housing
  • Police cruiser
  • Elderly services
  • Food Pantry
VI.   Consolidation of Ideas: Discussion of the 7 Categories of Community Needs
Chair Rita Furlong introduced a discussion of the 7 categories of need that were outlined at the August 17 meeting.  
  • Senior /Affordable Housing:
The Task Force agreed that the public discussion has continued to focus on the need in Becket for Senior/affordable housing.  One of the issues related to this was the question as to whether acceptance of federal funding on a housing project required inclusion of affordable low to moderate income units.  Tony Blair stated that eligibility for CDBG funding requires that the project benefit low to moderate income individuals.  DHCD requires that 51% or higher of the elderly in a community be low to moderate income in order for that community to qualify.  Since 54% of Becket’s elderly are currently low to moderate income, the town automatically eligible, with the understanding that CDBG funds cannot be used for new construction.  CDBG funds may, however, be used for rehabilitation of existing buildings, low or no interest loans (or a loan pool), acquisition of property and infrastructure improvements to properties in anticipation of creating elderly housing.

The Task Force then considered the possibility of utilizing existing properties in Town, and discussed several vacant houses and properties currently for sale.  Mr. Blair reminded the group that rehabbing an existing building for elderly housing can pose additional problems with accessibility, and that viability of projects is at issue: some properties would be outrageously expensive to refurbish.  With this in mind, the Task Force generally voiced interest in the concept of reuse of existing properties and agreed to pursue additional information on what might be available.  There was also discussion about the administration costs of operation senior housing and Mr. Blair stated that he doubted that the Town would want to own, maintain and operate such a facility.  

At this point Patricia Mullins of BRPC mentioned that Andrew Baker, Director of the Hilltown CDC, had offered to come before the Task Force and present an overview of some of the CDC’s affordable housing projects, funding sources, as well as operation costs and issues related to these projects.  The Task Force agreed that this would be helpful, and Ms. Mullins was requested, as an Action Item to invite Mr. Baker to speak at the next Task Force meeting on August 31, 2009.
Further discussion on the topic of senior housing included exploring the possibility of drafting a by-law allowing accessory apartments in the town of Becket.

The discussion moved on to the consideration of where senior housing should most appropriately be located in the town, including North Becket Village, Becket Center, or the Jacobs Well property currently owned by the town.  Each of these options included properties with potential advantages and challenges, and Madeleine Swindelhurst presented a matrix for use in comparing the pros and cons of each site.  Tony Blair offered to convert the matrix to an Excel spreadsheet and forward it to Task Force members.  Meredyth Babcock suggested that the Community Development Strategy should include assessing the current status of the various properties being discussed and Joshua Lombard added that Ms. Swindelhurst’s matrix could well serve that purpose.
There was a discussion about the USDA’s various programs to provide low interest loans for home buyers and for home improvements.  The Task Force was interested in details on a developing low interest loan pool for affordable homes in general.  

  • Pubic Transportation:
This topic was discussed partially in relation to the choice of location for Senior and/or Affordable Housing and in the comparison location matrix.  It was noted that Jacob’s Well is situated in greater proximity to the Town of Lee, with its services and commercial attractions.  But in contrast, North Becket village offers proximity to the Library, Arts Center, a general store, the Mullen House and the Westfield River.  But due to the Town’s remote location, its size and geography, any site chosen for Senior Housing, a Community Center, or any other public facility, will potentially pose transportation issues for some residents.  In the meantime, vocational students are finding it difficult to get to school and the Town’s youngsters are missing out on opportunities to participate in sports and other activities due to lack of transportation.

Mr. Blair said that he is working on a plan to lease or acquire a 14 passenger van that would be used to transport vocational students to and from school, but that also could be available for other uses during the off hours, summer and holiday vacations.  He is also working with the BRTA to explore ways to develop public transportation in the Town.  He mentioned that development of a Community Center with dependable access through public transportation could lead to other economic development and centers.  As an Action Item, Steve LaBelle was asked to work identifying logical places throughout town for bus stops.

  • Sidewalks, Trails, Parking and Infrastructure:
The Task Force then considered the issue of improvements to signage, connectivity, infrastructure, parking, trails and access to the Westfield River, primarily in the North village.  The concept of placing all electrical and cable wires underground, at least in the Historic district, was explored.  The idea of a Riverwalk, possibly including access to the river, was promoted as a means of connecting residents to the natural beauty of the Village, an enticement to visitors and economic stimulus, and as a means for providing educational opportunities to both children and adults through exposure to the Westfield River ecosystem.  It was also suggested that the “Healing Water” program, enabling veterans to access waterways could become a model for Becket.  Tony Blair suggested that planning and design of a user friendly access point to the river, in conjunction with the Wild and Scenic Westfield River organization, might be an attractive idea as one element of the CDBG grant application.  

Task Force members were also concerned that visitors to the area be guided by appropriate signage for one point of interest to the next, that the Village sidewalks be accessible and safe, with crosswalks and lighting in appropriate locations, and that parking be located so as to be convenient and encourage visitors to stop and explore the area.

Several pieces of property in North Village were discussed as possible locations for parking, and other properties were discussed as desirable for acquisition due to proximity to existing parks and trails.

The Task Force also discussed other areas in the Town, such as Becket Center and Bonnie Rigg Hill Road where sidewalks are lacking.

Action Item: Meredyth Babcock will contact Rachel Fletcher of the Wild and Scenic Westfield river organization and acquire available information on trail stewardship programs and other conservation initiatives that the Town might collaborate in.
  • Public Safety Facilities:
There was a brief discussion which on the Public Safety Facility centered on the potential for USDA funding for construction.  It was also suggested that the Town consider setting up a boat washing station to combat the invasion of zebra mussels in the Town’s ponds, but Mr. Blair stated that testing had shown that the water chemistry in most of the Town’s water bodies is not compatible to the requirements of the mussels.
  • Community Centers:
The Task Force felt that the previous discussion of Community Centers had covered the topic adequately.  There was a brief discussion about possible locations for such a center in the vicinity of Jacob’s Well.  Rita Furlong reminded the group of the long term operations and maintenance costs of such facilities, however, if new construction were to occur, Sherwood Forest and other areas in Town would all be considered.

  • Comfort Stations:
This topic was discussed briefly.  It was mentioned that there are plans to install a Clivus toilet as part of the improvements to the Mullen House, and that the Becket General Store now has a restroom available for the public.  This would seem to address the need for public restrooms in the north Village.  Tony Blair reminded the group that communities historically have had huge problems with public bathrooms.

  • Site Assessment and Acquisition:
Without discounting its importance, there was general agreement that this topic had been covered adequately throughout the rest of the meeting.  The concept of eminent domain was briefly discussed and Mr. Blair mentioned that any acquisition of property by the Town requires Town meeting Action.  Several Task Force members suggested that the concept of assessing and acquiring property for open space, economic development, and/or affordable housing should become part of the Community Development Strategy.
Action Item: Patricia Mullins of BRPC will invite Andrew Baker of the Hilltown CDC to speak at the next Task Force meeting on August 31, 2009.

Action Item, Steve LaBelle was asked to work identifying logical places throughout town for bus stops.

Action Item: Meredyth Babcock will contact Rachel Fletcher of the Wild and Scenic Westfield river organization and acquire available information on trail stewardship programs and other conservation initiatives that the Town might collaborate in.

The meeting was adjourned by Chair Rita Furlong at 7:09pm.

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