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Berkshire Planning Commission Talks Housing, Workforce Advocacy
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
04:32AM / Wednesday, November 23, 2022
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — With a new state administration taking over next year, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission on Thursday discussed its priorities for the county.

"We have an opportunity that only comes along every few years really where we have a new administration coming in," Executive Director Thomas Matuszko said to the committee last week.

He pointed out that Gov.-elect Maura Healey and Lt. Gov.-elect Kim Driscoll have announced the formation of transition policy committees and said it is important to advocate for county priorities when Healey and Driscoll take office.

Pittsfield native A.J. Enchill,  who is president and executive director of the Berkshire Black Economic Council, is serving as co-chair of the Healy-Driscoll transition's "Jobs and a flourishing economy for all" committee.

Matuszko said BRPC has identified housing as one of the biggest priorities through work on its Housing Regional Strategy and other efforts. This was seconded by committee members as they brought up issues with availability and affordability.

Workforce development also came up as a priority.

"Certainly, in South County and in a rural community in South County, we are in a total housing crisis here and sometimes interested parties tend to conflate availability versus affordability," Tyringham Delegate Amanda Hamilton said.

"And another thing is that here, we're really looking at how do we how do we maintain ourselves as a vital and vibrant community with people of all ages and backgrounds rather than becoming as [if] it were a rural theme park for big money coming in from the outside."

She said it is also important to protect sustainable agriculture and small businesses so that there are employment opportunities other than property management and hospitality.

Egremont delegate Mary McGurn spoke to the issue of land security and availability, highlighting the efforts of the Harry Conklin Fund for Farmsteads that support secure and long-term access to land for farmsteads and small-scale farmers.

"Typically, younger farmers want to get into farming, want to be tied to the land," McGurn explained.

"Land in which they can have some security, they can have access to affordable land and it also involves housing because they need to have housing to go along with it."

She said there has to be something that deals with this issue and finds a way to provide access to affordable land.

Last year, the state’s Agricultural Commissioner John Lebeaux visited South County farms and heard similar stories.

McGurn explained that her town does not have any defined affordable or workforce housing but is trying very hard to create it for the first time, which is reportedly a challenge.

Some of the barriers she has observed in securing funding for affordable housing are the lack of transportation, zoning, and public pushback due to misunderstanding.

Lanesborough delegate Barb Davis-Hassan said if you want to keep the workforce here you have to have affordable housing and the ability to build.

She feels that zoning regulations such as the 200-foot setback required for building near a river limits possibilities for construction in the county.

"I think we, as Planning Board members, if we want to see our communities grow and we want to provide the workforce housing that's going to keep the folks here that want to be tradespeople, we’ve got to be active participants as well," she said.

Sheffield delegate Sari Hoy likes the river setback because she is concerned about the amount of forest being lost to large homes in rural communities.  Hoy does environmental work and reported seeing this throughout the last couple of years.

She added that workforce housing is highly important in her town but they face similar struggles to Egremont.

"The real challenge with housing in small towns, I think some of the challenge is we don't have town (sewer) and we only have town water in a small central area and that's a huge block when it comes to building workforce/affordable housing," Hoy said.

"What I do think we can do and reconsider and is viable in small towns is changing our zoning so that we can do infill.  A lot of affordable housing and it would be perfectly situated more centrally to the town center and also then if you've got more apartments and buildings in the town center, then maybe that's more likely to maybe attract a little bit more public transportation."

The cost of education in rural communities was also brought forward as a concern.

During the meeting, the committee also approved the five-year Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy and reviewed survey results on recent movers and second homeowners.

The survey that BRPC conducted earlier this year found that the largest amount of second homeowners have properties in Becket and have owned a second home in the county for 20 or more years that were purchased for less than $200,000.

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