Great Barrington — What does the Master Plan, just completed over a 3-year period, mean for the youth of Great Barrington? After all, they are the ones who will grow up under the document’s policies and guidelines for the next decade or two?
During a Berkshire Edge exclusive interview with Master Plan Co-Chair Michael Wise at his home on Castle Street, he explains that “one of our planning assumptions was that, in the world as it is now, talented, energetic, young people are going to want to go somewhere else” to get a college degree and get a start on a career.
He doesn’t blame them.
“This town would be more attractive for people returning in their 30s and 40s after they have already been established,” he maintains.
And if history tells us anything, it is that they may do just that. But if and when these adventurous youths do find their way back, Great Barrington may look very different.
If all goes according to plan – the Master Plan — in about 10 years Great Barrington should have newly reconfigured water lines and sewer system, bike lanes on all the major roads to offer an alternative to the automobile, a renovated railroad line to the New York Metropolitan Area, and a series of improved sidewalks and bridges built to withstand the polarized weather patterns of climate change.
Further, while the town’s population has been declining over the past 10 years and there is little to no projected population growth for the following decade, the master plan is nevertheless optimistic about the town’s capacity to raise the necessary tens of millions of dollars required for renewing aging infrastructure. The plan recommends that these projects be prioritized so that the budget, heavily dependent on property taxes, is kept under control.
But the plan acknowledges major challenges for the town’s future, many of them rooted in changing demographics and the lack of employment opportunities that would offer young people salaries high enough to allow them to remain in the Berkshires.
The composition of the town’s population is both growing more diverse and older, with an increase in the number of Latinos, and with the median age rising to nearly 50 years old, as retirees seek second homes in Great Barrington and fewer young people remain.
An analysis of the town’s housing stock indicates that there are very few affordable homes, as rents have nearly doubled. Further, most of the existing houses date from before World War II, and are therefore costly to heat, and in need of serious renovation. With an increase in the number of families with what the master plan describes as “limited incomes,” the need for more affordable living spaces is a critical need.
Affordable housing units are in the planning stages for development at the New England Log Homes site and the former Searles School, both on Bridge Street. Should the Monument Mills in Housatonic ever be rehabilitated, that complex, too, could potentially include affordable housing units. These projects are costly, and may take decades to complete. The Master Plan suggests that some of the town’s large older homes be converted into apartments, or two family homes, and that with the adoption of the Community Preservation Act (CPA) there will be funds to put toward affordable housing projects in the future.
The master plan has also set some ambitious energy reduction goals for Great Barrington in order to fulfill its designation as an official Green Community. By 2025, the town municipal energy use will be cut by 20 percent. The drafters of the Master Plan recommend the town be prepared for the long-term effects of climate change. Measures such as building passive solar homes and developing commercial solar arrays in what is described as “appropriate areas” will help achieve this goal. They also urge the town to embrace the development of future renewable energy systems, adding that, “The town must be ready to address the tradeoffs. Agriculture and solar energy both need sunny, flat land. The town should establish guidelines that balance land uses and public and private interests.
One of the ways to cut Great Barrington’s carbon footprint is by improving the public transportation. In 1971, the passenger train that brought tourists and vacationers up from New York City to Great Barrington ceased its services. But the tracks still remain, and the Housatonic Railroad Company is optimistic about restoring the passenger service.
“ Townspeople, too, are convinced the passenger railroad makes sense, for both convenience and the sake of the environment,” the Master Plan reads. “Not only would it connect people from the New York metro area to the Berkshires, but it wouldalso be an internal connection within the Berkshires.”
It is very possible that in a decade or so, some of the young men and women who sought opportunity elsewhere, will return to their childhood home, on this very commuter line from New York. When these scientists, businessmen, entrepreneurs and artists arrive they will see many of the changes proposed by the Master Plan. While there is always uncertainty about a town’s future, the Master Plan reassures us that “In the coming decades, Great Barrington will continue to be both rural and urban. It will embrace and support people of many ages, incomes and ethnicities. Our landscapes, history, walkable neighborhoods, and vibrant village centers will remain the foundations for the prosperity of future generations.”