|Berkshire Regional Planning Tackles Rural Issues|
|By Jeff Snoonian, iBerkshires Correspondent|
03:55AM / Friday, October 04, 2019
|The BRPC Executive Committee meets on Thursday night.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Rural communities and the unique challenges they present took a front seat on Thursday at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's Executive Committee.
Thomas Matuszko, executive director of BRPC, presented the board with an executive summary of the 108-page Rural Policy Plan
released Wednesday by the state's Rural Policy Advisory Commission.
"This plan looked at how rural communities, which are the majority of communities in Berkshire County, have different needs and different impacts," he said. "They came up with a list of strategies for each of the different sectors and what is really important for rural communities."
Some of the major points include developing incentives for service sharing, targeting economic development strategies specifically for rural areas, and ensuring equitable education funding.
Matuszko looks at cooperation between rural and urban areas as essential given the latter's population boom.
"The population in Boston is expected to grow by 30 percent over the next short time period, it's already extremely congested. How can rural Massachusetts help to solve some of Boston's problems as well as address our own issues?"
Inequalities in funding and the formula used to determine state aid is a concern of the commission as well.
"Another high level recommendation was a 'rural factor' in terms of state funding formulas," Matusko said. "It seems like a lot of the funding is based on population and we lose out. Especially because our population is declining."
Committee member Roger Bolton of Williamstown wants to make sure it's not more of the same old topics.
"We have to be careful that we don't let that go on and on about the same old things, like internet access or broadband," he said. "It would be useful if you could structure things to help avoid that."
Matusko hopes a more permanent advocate for rural communities in the State House will do just that.
"The key item that we want is an Office of Rural Policy recognized in state government. That there be an office with someone who can really pay attention to these types of rural issues on a day to day basis."
The entire Rural Policy Plan was presented on Oct. 2 to the Rural Legislation Caucus at the State House.
Along the lines of challenges rural living poses, committee member Rene Wood of Sheffield brought up a bill recently introduced by state Sen. Adam Hinds that would look at funding from a less traditional angle.
"There's a bill that Adam Hinds introduced which is really to stop using postal ZIP codes to determine what goes to what town," Wood said. "Sheffield got nothing the last two years in rural aid because a lot of our towns use whatever Great Barrington is ... 01230. So Berkshire Hills [Regional School District] got the money even though the students are in ours [Southern Berkshire Regional]."
The hope is to tie this bill into the upcoming vote on the Student Opportunity Act, which is a bill introduced by the Joint Committee on Education to ensure high quality education to all students regardless of ZIP code or income.
Matuszko said Hinds received $50,000 from the state to support the work of the Berkshire County Education Task Force. The committee wants to inject new life into the BCETF and feels a full-time program manager might be the answer.
"It won't be [full time] right now but we have, through Berkshires Tomorrow, applied for other grants," Matuszko said. "And we've been given some indication, that with good likelihood of success for those, the hope of BCETF is that it could be grown into a full time position. That's the level of effort that is needed to move this initiative forward. Someone needs to be thinking about it on a daily basis."
Berkshires Tomorrow is a nonprofit corporation under the BRPC umbrella for particularly advancing education, learning and technology.
Committee member CJ Hoss of Pittsfield wants to make sure that any expansion of the state's SMART, or Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target, program is implemented with as little impact on natural resources as possible.
"While we support solar development in the Berkshires, opening up the cap is going to push more of it to the Berkshires," Hoss said. "While the discussions are leaning toward brownfield redevelopment, rooftops, or other solar arrangements that don't involve clear cutting forests, a significant number of the projects over the majority results in the clear cutting of forests.
"We want to push developers away from significant land clearing when there are plenty of brownfield and rooftop opportunities."
The Executive Committee's next meeting will be Nov. 7 and will focus on the Rural Policy Plan. The meetings are public and held at the BRPC office on Fenn Street.