Hilltowns prepare for the effects of climate change

  • Carrieanne Petrik, MVP Berkshires and Hilltowns regional coordinator, speaks to town officials from Worthington and Cummington at a community resilience building meeting in Worthington on Saturday. FRAN RYAN

For the Gazette
Published: 2/2/2020 11:48:31 PM

WORTHINGTON — The hilltowns of western Massachusetts are known for both their rural landscape and the resiliency and self-sufficiency of the people who call this region home. Living in these rural communities, however, can present unique challenges to addressing the progressing effects of a changing climate.

As the effects of global climate change become more evident here, local hilltown officials and community leaders are coming together to create sustainable solutions designed to protect their communities from the multiple impacts of increased temperatures, rainfall and more powerful storm events.

“I think that climate chaos is a big issue and I want to participate in finding proactive plans for the future,” Cummington Conservation Commission member Sarah Fournier said at a community resilience building meeting facilitated by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Saturday, in Worthington.

Led by Senior Planner Emily Slotnick, the meeting was part of a process that will enable the towns of Cummington and Worthington to become Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) communities, which will enable them to apply for state MVP action grants in amounts of up to $2 million for community-scale projects and $5 million for regional projects.

These MVP projects may include things like creating detailed vulnerability assessments, ecological restoration and habitat management, energy resilience, nature-based solutions to address climate impacts, chemical safety, land acquisition for resilience, and resilient public housing.

“The MVP program wants to utilize the expertise of individual communities in finding strategies to become more resilient to the effects of climate change,” said Carrieanne Petrik, MVP Berkshires and Hilltowns regional coordinator.

Those in attendance included Hilltown Community Development Corp. Executive Director Dave Christopolis, Worthington Select Board Chairman Charlie Rose and Cummington Select Board Chairman Bill Adams, as well as public safety officials, highway superintendents, and members of various town boards and commissions.

Slotnick presented data noting that the hottest years ever recorded have been in the last 22 years and that in 2018, there were 14 separate billion-dollar disasters in the U.S.

“This is the new normal,” she said. “Things like 7 inches of rain in a day is something we will see more frequently. This is where we are.”

In rural communities, that translates to a longer or additional mud season, flooding, road washouts, damage to older buildings, increased forest fires and invasive species, tree loss and economic instability.

“There is a particular need in the hilltowns for a strategy and support on these issues,” Slotnik said. “We are here to do whatever we can to amplify the voice of these communities.”

There are six hilltown communities in Hampshire County: Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Plainfield, Worthington and Williamsburg. Rural communities like these face unique challenges in being able to prepare for the effects of a changing climate.

Bigger cities and towns have larger budgets that not only enable them to better address infrastructure upkeep and repairs, but also to employ fulltime municipal staff to assist with town planning, and emergency departments to protect the health and safety of their communities.

In the hilltowns, however, most town employees are part time at best, and there is great reliance on many volunteers, including all-volunteer fire departments.

“With budgets and resources the way they are in the hilltowns, we are very dependent on the grant process to get things done,” Adams said.

This, coupled with many dirt and gravel roads, reduced access to medical treatment and food and supplies, an absence of adequate emergency shelters and an aging population, leaves rural communities at a serious disadvantage in planning for and adapting to the effects of climate change.

“My role is to be out in the community letting people know about the program, Petrik said. “It is an important way for communities to get funding and support,”

Petrik noted that while people in the hilltowns are at a certain disadvantage, their familiarity and skill at making do, and working together on a variety of local and regional issues, allows them to bring a unique knowledge and experience to the table.

In addition to local expertise, 25 students from Smith College prepared five in-depth data-based research papers on how climate change will affect the hilltowns. These included an assessment of drinking water vulnerability, climate mitigation, future forest risks, and culverts and stormwater management.

“I really have to compliment the Smith College students for their efforts and the outstanding work that they did,” Adams said. “They were tenacious in their research and they really held us to task, which only helps us in our work.”

Common ground

Those who attended the meeting identified their local strengths and vulnerabilities as related to climate change, and created a list of prioritized actions that could be taken.

These findings will eventually be presented at a future public meeting at which members of the public will also be invited to share their thoughts and ideas and a final report will be prepared by the PVPC.

“I think this was a great process,” said Peggy O’Neal, executive assistant to the Worthington Select Board. “We generated lots of good ideas and there was a lot of enthusiasm.”

Katy Eiseman of the Cummington Planning Board said she appreciated the opportunity to sit down with a variety of people with whom she doesn’t frequently communicate.

“I was glad to be here,” Eiseman said. “We found common ground and shared ways in which we want to help the town.”

Once each town goes through this process, they can become an MVP designated community and apply to receive funding for eligible projects.

According to Petrik, the rural communities of Plainfield, Ashfield, Conway, Buckland and Charlemont are now MVP communities and Williamsburg is currently in the process of becoming eligible.

Chesterfield and Goshen will be holding their first community resilience building meeting this Wednesday.

“I think this gives everybody a feeling of empowerment,” O’Neal said. “Instead of feeling helpless about climate change, this is something that we can do.”




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