Hilltowns getting state hand to deal with climate challenges

  • Dave Christopolis is executive director of the Hilltown Community Development Corp.

For the Gazette
Published: 9/21/2019 5:58:37 PM

For rural communities like those in the Hilltowns of western Massachusetts, climate change presents a unique set of challenges. A combination of small-town budgets, limited municipal personnel, aging infrastructure and their remote locations make it difficult for rural towns to mitigate damage and adapt to the effects of more frequently severe weather.

Now, seven Hilltowns — Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Plainfield, Williamsburg and Worthington in Hampshire County, and Windsor in Berkshire County — will be receiving assistance from the Commonwealth’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program, which will help them to assess their vulnerability to climate change, develop resiliency plans and implement resilience projects.

“I am very excited about this,” said Dave Christopolis, executive director of the Hilltown Community Development Corp. “The environment is the No. 1 concern for me, and I think it is very important to find ways to pay attention to climate vulnerability in the Hilltowns.”

Plainfield was the first town to apply for the MVP grant and completed its yearlong program this summer.

Select Board Chairman Howard Bronstein said the town now has 21 strategies to become more resilient to climate change, including plans that focus on water conservation, dam safety, forest management, and preservation of open space to improve wildlife habitat and protect natural resources, and upgrades to stream crossings, bridges and culverts.

Emily Slotnick, a senior planner for environmental and land use with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, administered the program in Plainfield, and is now working with Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen and Worthington on the Northern Hilltown MVP Project.

Christopolis wrote the grant application for the four towns to participate in the program together.

“Climate has no borders, so it is nice to do a joint application like this,” he said. “To me this is just another way to work on a regional level.”

Representatives from the towns met Friday in Goshen to kick off their program.

Slotnick said the group will likely be looking at several climate change issues including increased flooding and extreme temperatures.

High-intensity rainstorms are overwhelming aging culverts, she said, causing damage to many roads, as well as contributing to the contamination of drinking water, a significant problem in the Hilltowns, where residents rely on private wells.

“We know that climate change is affecting the water table,” Christopolis said. “I have a contaminated well right here at the office in Chesterfield and I have to buy water for the building.”

The Hilltowns also have large and growing senior populations.

“Elders in the Hilltowns are very self-sufficient, but at the same time they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate,” Slotnick said. “You may be 80 and used to living in the Hilltowns, but as the extreme heat intensifies or power outages increase, it becomes harder to adapt.”

Slotnick said that one effective rural strategy to combat the effects of climate change might be developing community connectivity in order to decrease isolation.

Christopolis said he would also like to examine transportation issues, noting that the location of the Hilltowns far from major services, schools and employment requires residents to travel further and often.

“It is really difficult because there is not much up here that you don’t have to drive to,” he said. “We are not like towns that can provide bicycles to commuters.”

Some towns such as Williamsburg, which have yet to begin their MVP process, have been discussing the possible use of hybrid or electric vehicles, but some officials are not sure whether that would be a good fit for a small town.

“We are not like other larger cities and towns that have a lot of employees and a fleet of vehicles,” Williamsburg Town Administrator Charlene Nardi said. “We don’t have many employees, we don’t have a fleet — we have dump trucks, backhoes and some emergency vehicles.”

Even so Nardi said, the town will continue to ponder the possibility of a green vehicle.

Before the MVP materialized, all six Hampshire County towns had already been designated Green Communities and have been using funding from that program to reduce their carbon footprints by trying to lower energy use.

“We have been looking at energy efficiency and updating our heating system and lighting in the town buildings,” Nardi said. “We are also installing LED streetlights.”

The town is also putting timers and temperature sensors in buildings that currently get little to no use so that heat will come only to keep pipes from freezing.

“Every town has the same concerns and we are trying to address the issues as best we can,” Cummington Select Board Chairman Bill Adams said.

Unlike larger towns, most Hilltowns have very little town-owned property and their town buildings are old and aging, making town-owned solar installations difficult.

“We don’t have property to put municipal solar on, and we don’t want to put it on a building that may need to be knocked down,” Chesterfield Town Administrator Sue Labrie said.

Several towns, including Worthington and Chesterfield, have contracted with Nexamp to receive their energy from solar farms, and Goshen has recently installed a 12-kilowatt solar array on the roof of its fire department.

For Hilltown communities, the stress of tight budgets, limited economic diversity, geographic and demographic obstacles, physical isolation, and limited access to communication services and high-speed internet presents distinct barriers to preparing for a changing climate.

Leaders, howeve say assistance provided through the Green Communities program and the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program can make a significant difference in helping rural towns develop practical and fitting solutions to the mitigate the effects of climate change.

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