Perhaps no time period encapsulates the nation’s attitude towards government more than the past four years. On the heels of one contentious Presidential election, the country descended into vitriolic divisiveness, platforms like social media flaunted their ugly angles while friends and neighbors swore each other off. After four years of political tensions burning off a greasy top layer from the bubbling kettle of collective avarice for rightness of opinion, the pandemic hit. The result was a toxic reality of folks being stuck indoors, further compelled to air their political grievances to a faceless mob of confused, angry and disparate digital onlookers. The once fomenting stew has since hardened to a crust of bitter apathy.
Fresh new faces coming to the forefront
One of the few notions that has seemingly siphoned itself through stodgy political convention is a glittering youth movement in local government. Young folks on various edges of political bent have found themselves motivated to enter the fray on behalf of the towns and villages throughout the Hudson Valley, Connecticut, and the Berkshires. With the inertia of issues like affordable living, cannabis, climate change, and employment growing in our area, sentiment is calling for a change in perspective and youthful representation.
In Sheffield, MA, Millerton-born Robbie Cooper embodies the burgeoning new faces poised to lead historic towns into the future. In May, Cooper beat Sam Stolzar in a tight race to secure a seat on the town’s Planning Board. Spurred on by a “pro-business” philosophy instilled within him by his family’s generations of hard work, Cooper reflects upon his inspiration, his positions on several localized issues, and his goals to help usher Sheffield toward a bright future.
What compelled you to run for the Town of Sheffield’s Planning Board? Had you held a public position previously?
I have always felt strongly about local government needing more young people involved. With three young children under the age of eight at home and a very demanding professional life, I figured there was never going to be a “perfect” time to run for something.
There were some controversial issues that Sheffield’s boards were being confronted with and I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to get involved and perhaps bring a younger perspective to some of these issues.
I hadn’t had any experience holding a political seat before. The most I had done politically prior to this was volunteering for a recent Presidential campaign by doing phone-banking. Obviously, that type of political involvement lives on the macro level and small-town government is completely different.
I was surprised to find that, from the moment I went to the town hall to get the necessary paperwork to run, everyone was super helpful and encouraging. Sheffield is certainly a town that embraces the idea of younger people, particularly those with children, getting involved.
A lot of the towns that are resistant to allowing the younger population to have a voice tend to not really change all that much, they end up feeling kind of developmentally frozen. You hear about this kind of thing a lot. I decided to run for the planning board specifically because I felt it would be a good fit for me because of my nearly 20 years in construction working for our family business, Associated Lightning Rod Company. Our business necessitates us being well-versed in some real strict installation standards. Similarly, being on the Planning Board requires one becoming very familiar with comprehensive town by-laws.
What are your ties to Sheffield? Tell me a bit about your time growing up in the area. Did your family have an influence on you when it came to local government?
Well, I grew up in Millerton, NY, and had a really enjoyable childhood there. Going to Terni’s to get candy, walking to the elementary school every day, riding our bicycles through the neighborhood. It always felt as though the streets were full of kids, so I made lots of memories there.
I lived in Salisbury and Lakeville, CT, for about ten years in between and had a great experience living there during my adolescent years. I eventually wanted to venture out a bit but still stay reasonably close to our business and have now lived in Berkshire County for about 16 years. Before living in Sheffield, I had a home in the center of Great Barrington where I lived for eight years. We sold that home because at the time my daughter Skylar was two years old and growing fast and needing some more room to roam around. Our small yard in the center of town was certainly not enough for her and we wanted to have some more land. After looking at several homes in the surrounding towns we decided on Sheffield and that was definitely the right decision. Sheffield is actually the oldest town in Berkshire County and has this picturesque historic downtown streetscape that looks like something right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. There are now a lot of young families in town, a phenomenal school district, and lots of small businesses. There’s a quaintness that is really appealing.
Your family, your father in particular, are obviously generational pillars of the community, both in business and government. Are there important lessons to be learned in a family business that relate to serving the public in your position?
My family has always had a focus on community involvement. My grandparents were always involved in various organizations. My father (Rob Cooper) is the most selfless, generous person I have ever met in my life. I am sure anyone who knows him will agree. If he passes a complete stranger who is on the side of the road and has a flat tire, he stops to help them. It doesn’t matter how late he may be for a meeting. He always stops. He is constantly bringing a friend to the airport or volunteering to be on a board position or committee somewhere. In addition to his tireless efforts outside of helping others, I have been fortunate enough to see how rewarding it was for him to be involved in town government in Millerton and I felt obligated to carry on the tradition myself.
Is there a critical issue the Planning Board will be focusing on in the coming months/years?
There are many issues that Sheffield faces. A lot of these issues are issues that every town in the area faces: how can we get young people to come back to these towns after college and start families? How can we get more businesses to start up here? How can we create more tax revenue for the town?
Back to the former of those issues, we obviously have to provide solid, long-term employment opportunities as well as affordable housing. As of now, the younger population is declining in Berkshire County largely because of the extremely high cost of living and lack of long-term employment opportunities. Younger people are finding it more sensible to move to states like North Carolina that have lower costs of living and enticing job opportunities. Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut need to compete.
In Sheffield, the Planning Board can play a small but meaningful and constructive role in assisting in these efforts by granting permits to commercial applicants who want to come into our town and set up shop – given that it’s the right fit for the town. Of course, one of the more inevitable issues the Planning Board will face in the coming months or years would be the growing cannabis industry. Sheffield has been a specific location of interest for a lot of these companies because of the vast agricultural land that we have. There was a recent citizens petition that voted in favor of a by-law change in June of this year that would further restrict the number of marijuana-based businesses that can operate in town. But cannabis businesses are certainly not dead in Sheffield and the planning board is the granting authority for the special permits required for those businesses to operate.
The question of whether or not to allow for cannabis dispensaries in small towns is now a Tri-state issue. What are your thoughts and how does the Planning Board specifically factor into this process?
It’s certainly one of the more complicated issues the Tri-state area faces. At the end of the day, it’s already a 30-billion-dollar industry that is only going to continue to grow. Great Barrington is a good local case study in the sense that they have many busy retail spaces that have been running for some time and are currently sitting on about seven million in tax revenue generated by these retail establishments.
Sheffield has a vertically integrated business, The Pass, that has been up and running for some time and is also doing very well. Contrary to what some people may think, these are highly secure establishments that are also inconspicuous in design. Some people may think that there are neon signs on these buildings saying “pot sold here” or something of that nature, and it’s the complete opposite. You barely notice them when you drive by, as they look like any other storefront. When you enter these retail spaces, it has more of an aesthetic of a Starbucks and much less of something as say, a package store. The establishments that are already operating in Berkshire County are going to continue to prosper and bring in tax revenue for their respective towns over the coming years. The neighboring communities may be faced with the reality that they are missing out on that revenue if they don’t allow the same dispensaries to open up in their towns.
The Planning Board in Sheffield is faced with more of a unique challenge in regard to cannabis because a lot of the applicants that have come before the board have been specifically geared toward outdoor growing. This was met with more opposition here in Sheffield because of the fact that when you have cannabis plants growing outdoors – there will inevitably be odors associated with the plants while they are in their flowering stage. It is important to remember however that hemp is now federally legal and is a global industry that is growing at a rate of 34% each year (largely because of the demand for CBD).
Hemp has the same types of odors emitted and doesn’t have the same restrictions that a permitted cannabis grow would have. So, you could have an applicant be denied a cannabis permit for an outdoor grow and they could then turn around and grow hemp on their property with less oversight. Or even worse, someone could potentially use that vacant agricultural space for something that may be far more environmentally destructive.
One thing a lot of people don’t realize is that in Massachusetts, cannabis must be grown organically without any pesticides. There aren’t a lot of cash crops grown in this country that need to adhere to such strict standards. In summary, my recommendation would be for a town to not run away from the industry out of fear of the unknown. Instead, I think that every town’s Planning Board should work to get solid by-laws in place to stay ahead of things.
As a member of the Planning Board and a resident of Sheffield, what does it mean to be directly involved in decisions that directly affect the community where you live?
I feel really proud and grateful to have been elected to the Sheffield Planning Board. The fact that so many people (many of which did not know me personally) took a chance and voted for me is something I don’t take for granted. I am aware that because we are a small town of 3,257 people, the decisions we make as a board can have an immediate impact on our community.
What I do know for sure is that our planning board is looking out for the best interests of our community. I have the utmost respect for my fellow board members. They are knowledgeable, thoughtful, and attentive. We have been unanimous on every decision since I was elected in May, so I guess that shows we work well together! I hope to be involved in the community for many years to come.
* Disclaimer: Griffin Cooper, the author of this article, is not related to Robbie Cooper.