Above: Selectwoman Jane Allen explains why she was the only member of the Board of Selectmen to oppose the second dwelling bylaw.
Left: Ann McCallum tries to rally voters in favor of the bylaw. The bylaw was approved but amended.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Voters overwhelmingly approved the creation of an affordable housing trust fund as well as an initial deposit of $200,000 at Tuesday night's annual town meeting.
The trust fund intends to be a vehicle for a newly formed committee to embark on affordable housing projects. Endorsed by the Affordable Housing Committee, the fund will be overseen by a new committee and be created with the initial deposit from Community Preservation Act funds.
Voters also approved giving the Affordable Housing Committee $107,000 to study possible projects the town could embark upon.
Affordable Housing Committee Chairwoman Catherine Yamamoto said the intent is to increase economic diversity of the town. Ten years ago the town's master plan called to add some 300 more units but only eight have been created since then, she said.
The warrant article did face some vocal opposition from two residents. Joan Burns argued against the article, saying that the town should address immediate needs — such as finding housing for residents of the Spruces or foreclosed homes — and that there are already groups working on improving affordable housing. The new committee will take away the town's voice in the projects, she continued.
"Why should we care how the state defines affordable housing if we can put people into these apartments," Burns said, adding that many affordable but vacant apartments are not counted in the inventory. "There is nothing the trust will be able to do that the town cannot already do."
Resident Matt Holland voiced similar opposition and said the town should instead change its zoning as a way to add affordable housing.
"We as a town have made our zoning very restrictive because we don't want our town to change," Holland said. "We don't even know what the committee's plans are."
Holland said he would rather wait until next year to vote until the Affordable Housing Committee develops an action plan.
Zoning Board of Appeals member Van Ellet countered by saying the trust fund committee is overseen the way other governmental bodies are, that the need is immediate and that the committee will work with other groups.
"I think it provides the timing and flexibility to do what is needed to be done," he said. "We know there is a huge need out there."
Voters also broke out in loud applause after passing a bylaw change that will allow farms to host weddings and other celebrations. Three separate bylaws were passed to allow farms to host small concerts, weddings and physical and creative arts classes with a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The bylaws proposed by Sherwood Guernsey and Cricket Creek Farm aimed to allow farms to earn extra income to stay in business.
"We know that we have to keep going in some way if we can but it's a difficult time," June Sabot, owner of Cricket Creek Farm, said.
The bylaw changes allowing large events and small concerts were not supported by the Board of Selectmen and some residents opposed them because of the effects they may have on the farms' neighbors, despite Planning Board Chairman Pat DunLavey saying all of the concerns were accounted for in the bylaws.
"We need peace and tranquility for the people who are not interested in the events," resident Gordon Squires said, putting emphasis on the allowance of amplified music.
Liz Costley was the winner of the annual Faith Scarborough Award for community service.
Selectman David Rempell voiced similar concerns about music, traffic and neighborly relations.
"This would be pitting neighbor against neighbor in a manner that we have not seen in a long time. That's why we voted against this bylaw," Rempell said.
But their pleas were unsupported by voters with significantly more residents in favor of the farms.
The Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals were at odds over the most contested vote for a zoning bylaw change would allow homeowners to add second dwellings to their property. The bylaw was amended to exclude the building of new structures but allows for existing structures to be converted.
The concept was to allow barns to be turned into rental or family apartments.
"These building are not being used as barns so much anymore and they are crumbling and falling down. This gives us an opportunity to preserve them," Planning Board member Ann McCallum said.
Zoning Board of Appeals members said they liked the intent of the article but felt there were too many loopholes.
"This is a major change, to me, in our zoning laws," ZBA member Lawrence Wright said. "I would be in favor of putting something in your barn but I would be oppose of taking your tool shed and expanding it 900 feet."
Wright motioned to eliminate both building a new structure as well as converting an existing one — both parts of the change were in the same language. McCallum countered with changing the language to include allowing conversion, which became the version of the law that passed.
Voters also overwhelmingly approved town and school budgets. The town budget is $6.5 million and is up by 2 percent; the Elementary School's $5.3 million is also up by 2 percent; Mount Greylock Regional High School's $4.6 million budget is just short of $10,000 more than last year and the assessment for the Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School District of $300,298 is down by 18 percent.
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It's true that Williamstown's population is fairly homogeneous. The Selectmen and town committees can't do much about racial diversity on its own. But they can address economic diversity, which is a value on its own and also might help to allow more racial diversity. Public services and public spaces, like youth center after school programs, and parks people can get to, like the library and also like subsidized housing, all help to provide free services and resources to those who can't afford them and most provide places where people see each other and get to know each other. It's a step.