Push on for state rural policy office amid concerns about incoming Baker administration

farm scene foot of Mount Warner.jpg
The foot of Mount Warner in Hadley (Trustees of Reservations photo)

By Shira Schoenberg | sschoenberg@repub.com on December 29, 2014 at 6:45 AM, updated December 29, 2014 at 6:50 AM

A group of advocates and lawmakers are pushing for the state to create a new office dedicated to rural policy.

"The long and short of it is rural areas ... because of their isolation, because of their lack of proximity to Boston and the fact that so many of them are so small, they often don't get the kind of attention that larger communities do," said Rita Farrell, an Amherst-based senior adviser to the Massachusetts Housing Partnership.

The effort is uniting representatives from disparate parts of the state. State Rep. Stephen Kulik, a Worthington Democrat, and state Sen. Dan Wolf, a Harwich Democrat, plan to co-sponsor a bill in the next legislative session to create an Office of Rural Policy.

The move could also send a message to Gov.-elect Charlie Baker, a Republican, urging him to take into account the needs of rural communities. Western Massachusetts activists note that Baker did not include on his transition team a single member from Hampshire, Franklin or Berkshire counties, which outside of Nantucket are the three most rural counties in the state. While Baker campaigned in Western Massachusetts cities, he spent far less time in rural areas like Franklin County. A group of community leaders from the western counties wrote a letter to Baker expressing concern about the makeup of his transition team.

Matt Barron, a Democratic strategist from Chesterfield, called it "depressing" that Baker did not include on his transition team representatives from the three western counties or from economic sectors that are vital to Western Massachusetts such as agriculture, forestry or the arts. Having an ombudsman to rural communities "would send a strong signal that the rural communities would have somebody" in government, Barron said.

Kulik said he is keeping an open mind about Baker and remains hopeful that Baker will recognize the needs of rural communities. "I want to give him the benefit of the doubt that it was an oversight, but not intentional, to exclude people from three western counties," Kulik said. "It's unfortunate that it happened, because there are very special needs here and voices that should be heard in his administration."

Baker, asked about the idea of a rural policy office, said he is "not a big believer in building new bureaucracies. I think we have plenty of those."

But Baker said he understands the need to appoint people in his administration who understand the state's diversity of issues. "I certainly think we need to make sure and be mindful of the fact that the issues that face folks who live in rural parts of Massachusetts are different from the ones that face people who live in our cities," Baker said.

Regarding the under representation of the Western Massachusetts counties on his transition team, Baker said he did not want a team that was too large and "unwieldy." "We wanted it to be a meaningful group of people who represented a broad cross-section of the commonwealth, and I believe we absolutely accomplished it," Baker said.

The new office was one of the central recommendations of a report by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, a non-profit focused on increasing the stock of affordable housing, which was released at a summit on rural housing earlier this month. The report wrote that of 351 cities and towns in the state, 170 are rural. Rural towns encompass just under half the state's land and 13 percent of its population. Rural areas are mostly on Cape Cod and in Western and Central Massachusetts.

The report found that while not all rural areas are identical, many of them face housing and other problems. In the southern Berkshires and Cape Cod, demand for second homes inflates housing prices so people who live there year-round, many of whom work in low-wage jobs in the tourist industry, cannot afford to buy there. In Franklin and Worcester counties and the northern Berkshires, the closure of employers like North Adams Regional Hospital, manufacturing facilities and energy plants has led to high levels of unemployment and a floundering economy. A lack of broadband Internet makes it harder to attract new employers.

Rural areas have an aging population, with younger people moving out, which threatens the vitality of those communities and forces communities to struggle to meet the needs of seniors. Low-income people struggle with a lack of public transportation.

Other recommendations of the report include: setting aside state funding for the development of rental units that are too small to use low income housing tax credits; adapting a community development block grant program to make it easier for rural towns to qualify for money; encouraging regional collaboration in housing; and supporting the building of water and sewer systems in rural communities.

Farrell said part of the problem is state policies often do not consider smaller communities. For example, a developer who wants to build a 10-unit development in a rural town is generally competing for state money with a developer proposing 100 units in a city. "Many policies and programs understandably are shaped for the largest communities, where you have the most dense population, but those programs and policies don't always work for rural areas," Farrell said.

Barron said policies relating to emergency services, for example, can be difficult to apply to a town like Chesterfield, which has an all-volunteer fire department. Small towns have trouble applying for programs like matching funds or grants because they have all-volunteer planning or zoning boards without the time or knowledge to fill out applications and figure out how to comply with new state regulations.

Kulik said the same principle applies to programs related to health care, social services or the environment. "There should be a watchful eye for what is applicable to rural communities and different needs," Kulik said. Kulik said he does not envision an expensive new office. Although the details are still being discussed, it could be a single person.

Alabama and Indiana both have offices related to rural affairs, while Alaska, Utah and Virginia have a senior individual in state government focused on rural issues, according to information compiled by Barron. The report wrote that Maryland and Pennsylvania have non-partisan offices established by the state legislature to focus on rural residents, while Vermont has a non-profit that collaborates with the state. Twenty states set aside money for rural housing development.

In Massachusetts, there was a non-profit Rural Development Council established under Gov. William Weld in 1996, part of a national initiative under President Bill Clinton. When funding was cut in 2003 by President George W. Bush, the council was discontinued. University of Massachusetts at Amherst established a center dedicated to rural issues in 1985, which was revived in 2004 but has since become inactive. There is a state rural health office.