New plan offers recommendations for rural issues

  • Franklin Regional Council of Governments Executive Director Linda Dunlavy in her Greenfield office. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Rep. Natalie Blais STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Rep. Paul Mark STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/10/2019 11:29:59 PM
Modified: 10/10/2019 11:29:48 PM

GREENFIELD — The Franklin Regional Council of Governments, state legislators and local leaders will be looking at, studying and using a 108-page plan meant to guide them as they find ways to address the unique challenges of rural Franklin County.

The Rural Policy Plan, prepared by the Rural Policy Advisory Commission, was released at the beginning of October. It offers dozens of recommendations for infrastructure, the economy, education, housing and public health, governance and resiliency, identifying and highlighting many unique issues facing rural areas across the state.

Franklin Regional Council of Governments Executive Director Linda Dunlavy chairs the commission, which consists of members from Western and Central Massachusetts, as well as Cape Cod. Corinne Fitzgerald, owner of Fitzgerald Real Estate in Greenfield, is the Senate president designee on the commission, Shawn Suhoski, town administrator for Athol, is the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission designee, and Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, is the Speaker of the House designee.

Dunlavy said FRCOG took a lead role in development of the Rural Policy Plan. She said the commission’s hope is that the plan has highlighted many challenges facing rural Massachusetts, and that it will be used to guide future policy and legislation that will benefit rural communities and the rural economy.

“Our top priority is to create and staff an office of rural policy so that there can be a continued focus on rural issues,” Dunlavy said.

An office of rural policy would be led by an “executive director” who would most likely report to the commission, develop core strategies including expanding diversity and implementing strategies to boost population in rural areas, and develop a statewide land-use plan and creating a rural factor to adjust state funding formulas.

Rural problems and concerns

Mark said commission hearings were held throughout the state and members met with a lot of residents who came out to express their concerns and offer testimony about rural problems and issues. He said that though 60 percent of the state is rural, only 15 percent of its population live in rural areas, so state government tends to be more urban- and suburban-centric.

“We’re always up against incredible numbers in rural areas,” Mark said. “And we face things like no cell service or broadband and other things urban areas take for granted.”

Mark said the purpose of the plan is to inform government so efforts can be coordinated, whatever they may be. He said the rural population gets to speak with a unified voice.

The Rural Policy Plan focuses on several areas, including infrastructure: broadband and cell service, transportation and water and sewer; the economy: economic development, land use and population trends; community: education, housing and public health; governance: boards and staffing, finances and service sharing; and resiliency: climate change, for instance.

Mark said the Rural Policy Plan is a blueprint for lawmakers and others throughout the state so that priorities can be determined and worked toward.

‘It’s going to need updates as we proceed, but that’s fine,” he said. “It gives lawmakers and leaders a place to dig in to areas that appeal to them.”

“I will be using this as my playbook,” Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, said. “It comprehensively looks at the challenges rural areas of the state face. And, Rep. Mark and I have co-sponsored a bill to create an office of rural policy.”

Blais said she used the Rural Policy Plan just recently when she attended a hearing on the governor’s transportation bond bill.

“I led with the Rural Policy Plan,” she said. “I’m already putting its recommendations to good use. It’s not a plan that is going to sit on a shelf. I will use it to guide my day-to-day work on behalf of the people of the 1st District.”

‘Big help’

The commission said core strategies that should be implemented by rural areas in Massachusetts include creating a dedicated funding stream for water and sewer infrastructure, redesigning public transportation, developing targeted economic development strategies for rural sectors, ensuring equitable and quality education to children in rural areas and developing municipal capacity and incentives for service sharing.

The updated Rural Policy Plan also recommends that rural areas should address the impacts of climate change by enhancing the capacity of rural lands to provide mitigative solutions.

Members say an office of rural policy could focus on the challenges of rural communities, businesses and residents, providing consistency and helping implement the recommendations of the plan. They also suggest that rural communities are made more welcoming, comfortable and inclusive for everyone, including migrants, to increase populations, and that rural areas have to look ahead to land use issues and growth in a “responsible, proactive and conscionable manner.”

The commission recommends that a rural factor to adjust state funding formulas is necessary, citing that Chapter 70 school aid and Chapter 90 road aid need to be determined by more than just population, especially in small towns with few residents but great need.

“The funding disparity to rural areas is also revealed through state programs such as workforce training due to sparse population density,” the plan says.

According to the commission, public transportation is critical to reaching educational and health care services. It is also a mobility lifeline for many who do not own a vehicle or have a way of getting around.

Therefore, the commission says, state and regional partners should explore options for coordinating shared transportation assets, including the Franklin Regional Transit Authority in Franklin County, schools, councils on aging and private service providers to develop sustainable cross-border transportation partnerships and develop a pilot to expand on the existing practices in shared transportation.

Many stakeholders took part in the policy plan, including Mohawk Trail Regional School District, and the state’s District Local Technical Assistance program funded the project by allocating funds to each of the state’s 13 regional planning agencies.

“Linda Dunlavy did an incredible job as chair of the commission,” Blais said. “She’s such a leader on the issues covered in the plan.”

Mark said commission members will be available to the public and members of government who are looking for more information and research to be done.

“I think all the time about rural issues,” Mark said. “This is going to be a big help.”

For a copy of the Rural Policy Plan, visit: bit.ly/2Mvnc7M

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-0261, ext. 269, or afritz@recorder.com.



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