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Housing and conservation resonate strongly with voters at Sheffield Town Meeting

Perhaps the most contentious article, and the only one defeated, was Article 29. By a narrow margin of 51 to 53, voters declined to reduce the number of members on the Conservation Commission from five to three (with two alternates).

Sheffield — About 110 voting residents attended the annual Town Meeting on May 6. The first 25 articles on the 32-article warrant passed handily with no discussion. The operating budget of $4.5 million passed despite an increase of eight percent from last year, reflecting a rise in expenses and costs.

Voters supported the school district, including its capital budget of $175,282, a three percent increase from last year, and $55,000 to send six students to a vocational agriculture program in Falls Village, Conn. The town supported its appointed officers, as well as its firefighters, cemeteries, and transfer station, with the warrant noting that the cost of trash disposal has “skyrocketed” this year. Voters approved $25,000 for the town to purchase information technology hardware and software.

Capital repairs and upgrades easily approved included $239,190 to replace two highway department trucks and $85,000 to purchase fire-truck hoses. The only unanimous vote was for Article 8, which simply allowed the town to accept the approximately $350,000 in highway maintenance funds from the state.

Voters were slightly more hesitant to pass Article 27, allotting $200,000 for a sidewalk replacement project for the Village Green because the brick sidewalks have become a tripping hazard, but it passed 87 to 17. One commenter said people with disabilities should be consulted, as there were accessibility issues with the project.

The first article to garner any discussion was Article 26, allotting $30,000 to begin a tree-management program. Town Administrator Rhonda LaBombard clarified that the intent was to proactively assess and remove dead trees hanging over the wires, adding that the town planned to look into the possibility of replacing trees taken down with others farther back from the wires. The article passed 99 to 7.

Perhaps the most contentious article, and the only one defeated, was Article 29. By a narrow margin of 51 to 53, voters declined to reduce the number of members on the Conservation Commission from five to three (with two alternates). The commission has been operating down one member this past year and no one has stepped up to serve.

Resident Pat Levine asked what the logic behind the move was and said we need as much participation in our town committees as possible, even if filling them is sometimes difficult.

Barry Kriesberg stepped up to commend the Conservation Commission for their “invaluable” work protecting the wetlands and agreed that the town shouldn’t codify the low numbers but keep participation as “robust as possible.”

Select Board member Rene Wood, who joined the Conservation Commission over two years ago because there were not enough members to make a quorum, said, “I do not take this motion lightly,” but asked voters to pass it, unless they would consider stepping up for the work, which she called the “most rigorous, demanding board commission in the town.” On a practical level, she noted that the commission often has a time limit to take action on proposals before them, that some members take regular vacations, and that without a quorum, no action can be taken. She thanked Don Ward for serving as an alternate for many years. “Why should we have a higher number than makes sense?” she posed.

Kathy Orlando, executive director of Land Protection at the Sheffield Land Trust, said in her comments that having served on the Conservation Commission, it is very rigorous, but also rewarding. She hoped people would be encouraged to step forward to serve before reducing the size of the board.

Voters passed Article 31, welcoming the right to create accessory-dwelling units in new or existing structures, whether attached to or detached from the main dwelling, by 100 to 6. The bylaw amendment was earlier approved by the Planning Board after a public hearing.

The Planning Board, said Wood, “has been working diligently” on expanding the number of housing options in town and called this “one tool in the housing repertoire.” It might encourage more young people to stay in Sheffield or come here, and provide more options for seniors. As written in the bylaw, part of the purpose is to “provide homeowners with a means of obtaining rental income, companionship, security and/or services, thereby enabling them to stay more comfortably in their homes.”

It was clarified that the amendment specifically prohibits the accessory units from being used as short-term rentals, which are defined by Massachusetts as under 30 days. No one present voiced any concerns about this.

Brittany Ebeling of the Planning Board stated, “It was very important to us that [the amendment] specifically be written in such a way that would support long-term occupancy for Sheffield residents and those who’d like to live here.”

Select Board Chair Kilmer called the measure “well thought out” and said, “I think it will be a great help to Sheffield as far as housing goes.”

Residents approved Article 30, another zoning-bylaw change, by 90 t0 14, cutting the minimum setbacks for lots in the town’s business district by more than half. Wood said the current setbacks are “out of whack with the rest of the districts.” The new highway garage just approved, for example, would contain about one-and-a-half acres, out of four, devoted to setbacks. The smaller setbacks would give residents greater use of that land.

Lastly, Article 32 concerned a proposed one percent surcharge tax on real estate in order to levy that with state money towards the causes of open space, historic preservation, outdoor recreation, and community housing.

Selectman Kilmer was the only one to voice opposition to this article, saying he believes in those values but doesn’t believe it is a “good time for a new tax,” and thinks those “wants” should come “more through nonprofits and donations from people with means.”

As Kathy Orlando and most other commenters emphasized, Article 32 would merely allow the one percent-tax proposal to be put on the ballot in November, and residents should be able to learn about it and decide for themselves. She noted that over 190 communities in the state have adopted it, and most have used the money for housing.

Will Conklin shared his experience in other communities that had adopted this tax, citing workforce development and the creation of youth jobs.

Ben Webb called it a “no brainer,” pointing out that everyone is already paying into the monies the state would allocate, and we can only access them if we enact the tax.

Select Board member Wood explained that the small tax, which includes generously measured low-income and senior exemptions, would raise about $78,000 a year. Noting that it was her last Town Meeting, she said, “I want to thank you for the privilege and honor and fun of serving you for 12 years. When I first ran for office 15 years ago, I wanted to create money, I wanted to create revenue streams besides property tax.” She cited the six percent room tax and 0.75 percent meals tax, which have raised around $500,000 since 2020.

“This is the only avenue I know of creating a revenue stream where we exclude our most vulnerable residents, ask for a small contribution, receive some money back from the state, and build it up for you at a later date to decide how you’re going to spend it amongst the four options written in the town warrant.”

Article 32 was approved 87 to 19.

The meeting ended with a round of applause for Rene Wood. “I know no one who works harder,” said Hannum, and Kilmer declared it “a pleasure and a learning experience to work with her over the last four years.”

From left: acting Moderator Julie Hannum, Select Board Chair Robert Kilmer Jr., Select Board member Rene Wood, Select Board clerk Nadine Hawyer, Town Administrator Rhonda LaBombard, and legal counsel Mark Reich. The meeting was Wood’s last on the dais, with the session ending with a round of applause for her service. Photo by Kateri Kosek.
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