Williamstown Zoners OK Highland Woods Project, Cable Mills

By Stephen DravisWilliamstown Correspondent
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The Cable Mills project is expected to break ground this spring, 10 years after being first permitted.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday greenlighted two large-scale housing projects that will add more than 100 residences to the town of 4,325.

In a marathon meeting, the ZBA approved plans for the Highland Woods senior housing project off Southworth Street and reapproved the development of the Cable Mills lot on Water Street.

The Cable Mills project came before the zoning board for the third time. It was previously permitted in 2004 and 2007, but each time plans to develop housing in the mill complex fell through.

"Basically, it's a reboot," said attorney Jamie Art, who appeared before the board on behalf of developer 160 Water LLC, a subsidiary of Boston's Mitchell Properties. "There's nothing new in terms of the site plan that requires additional relief."

Highland Woods, on the other hand, was making its first appearance before the board. The 40-unit senior housing project is planned for land promised by Williams College to help the town address some of the affordable housing need exacerbated by the loss of the Spruces Mobile Home Park.

Three of the four non-profits looking to build Highland Woods were represented at Thursday evening's meeting: Elton Ogden of Berkshire Housing Development Corp., Catherine Yamamoto of Williamstown's Higher Ground and Mollye Wolahan of Boston's Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development.

Attorney Donald Dubendorf took the lead on talking the board through the comprehensive permit application and development plan review for Highland Woods, which planners hope to have ready for occupation by winter 2016.

"We are very excited to be here," Dubendorf said. "We are here a bit faster than we would. We thought we'd be here next month, but some of the funding windows for low-income housing tax credits are closing a bit faster than a March visit to you would permit.

"As you know, Mr. Chairman, the comprehensive permit isn't for everything. It's only for a small universe of projects."

For that reason, Wolahan reminded the zoners of the pressing need that has required Highland Woods to seek a fast-track approval.

"Extraordinary is a great word when we think about where we are," Wolahan said. "It's been a tremendous effort of not only our project team but the entire community to come together and address a need that became evident after Tropical Storm Irene, as we all know ... and the loss of so much housing that was acting as affordable options for Williamstown elderly."

Although the Spruces Mobile Home Park was not "affordable housing" in the strict sense that it was subsidized with rents tied to the area median income, Highland Woods will be. Wolahan told the planners the 40 units will targeted at people at 60 percent or below AMI with a set aside for residents at the lower end of the income range.

"I'm looking at some deep affordability here to serve the folks at the Spruces who have been displaced and will be displaced when the park closes," Wolahan said.

To maximize that affordability, the developers asked the zoners to waive a provision in town bylaws that requires developers of elderly housing to pay real estate taxes or an equivalent payment in lieu of taxes to the town.

"We don't want to do that," Dubendorf said. "We want to keep our rents as low as possible. We want to negotiate our PILOT with the Selectmen. What we don't want to do is be forced by this body, a land-use governance body, to have to pay an equivalent PILOT to the real estate taxes.

"That ties our hands, and I'm not even sure that that provision of the bylaw is a lawful exercise of the zoning power."

The Highland Woods project also sought one other "non site-based waiver" from the ZBA: the ability to allow the first occupants of Highland Woods to be 55 and older instead than 62 and over, as required in the bylaws.

"We will have some Spruces residents less than 62," Dubendorf said. "We would like to accommodate them."

The ZBA approved both those waivers as well as a number of site-specific waivers of the local zoning bylaws.

Among the most significant: a waiver of a 500-foot frontage requirement. Highland Woods' frontage at the corner of Church and Southworth Streets will be just 60 feet — enough to allow an access road down to the property.

The zoners, who ultimately approved the project's comprehensive permit by a unanimous vote, inquired about developers' plans to mitigate disruption to the neighborhood during construction.

"What conditions have you set on hours of operation such that you're not running trucks when kids are entering school or leaving school?" David Levine asked, referring to the nearby Williamstown Elementary School.

Engineer Charlie Labatt of Guntlow & Associates told the board that if the project stays on schedule, the period with the most construction activity likely will be in July and August 2014, during school vacation.

"At the end of the day, we'll have a series of provisions in the general contract, and safety has to be maintained," Dubendorf said. "If that includes hiring police, so be it.

"We don't know our perfect construction timing right now."

Long-term, several residents of Southworth Street appeared before the board to express concern about increased traffic on a stretch of road already used as a "short-cut" by drivers looking to avoid the Field Park rotary and/or the Cole Avenue traffic light.

The developers, who already were planning new traffic signs at the corner, agreed to post signs that more clearly indicate the Highland Woods access road, which will have a stop sign for drivers existing the housing complex.

Highland Woods' developers will be back at Town Hall next Thursday, Feb. 27, to appear before the Conservation Commission to address stormwater management issues.

The Cable Mills project, which hopes to break ground this spring, will be built in two phases. The first, an 82-unit project that reuses existing buildings, will have 13 units set aside as affordable housing for residents earning 80 percent of the AMI. The second phase is five townhouses and 16 duplexes at the rear of the property along the Green River.

Zoners granted waivers that will allow non-compliance with town bylaws dealing with vegetation planting and parking lot screening.

In other business, the ZBA approved a home occupation permit for Valerie Ross to operate a lawn and garden care business from her home on Hopper Road and a special permit to Karen Jolin to move her Karen's Quilting Corner from 857 Cold Spring Road (Route 7) north to 723 Cold Spring Road.

Tags: affordable housing,   Cable Mills,   Higher Ground,   highland woods,   senior housing,   Spruces,   

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