Donald Dubendorf, Charles LaBatt and Jamie Art participate in a public hearing hosted by the Williamstown Planning Board.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board last week opened a dialogue with local experts in the area of residential development to see what changes might be made to the town's regulations.
Outgoing Planner Patrick Dunlavey convened the brainstorming session, which he characterized as his "swan song" on the board, and framed it in terms of addressing the town's 61-page "Subdivision Rules and Regulations," which were adopted in 1959 and last modified in 1993.
In a matter of moments, the scope of the discussion grew, and the board's guests — which included land-use attorneys, an engineer, a developer and a Realtor — encouraged the planners to look at a major overhaul of the town's zoning regulations.
"I think it's wrong to start with the subdivisions law," attorney Donald Dubendorf said. "You should start with major developments. ... It's been on the books since 1989, and no one has ever done one in Williamstown. They're undoable.
"I would urge you ... to expand the scope of the discussion and put subdivision regulations in the context of a larger discussion."
Dubendorf said the town's current zoning encourages larger lots that are also encouraging higher-end development and discouraging the kind of housing that working-class families need.
"I think there are real possibilities to rethink that major development bylaw," Dubendorf said. "I'm not sure what we want for Williamstown is a rich and very much aging ghetto.
"Regardless of your ability to fashion it immediately, I think there's an imperative to think about it more broadly."
Dubendorf was joined at the meeting by fellow attorneys Elisabeth Goodman and Jamie Art, developers Robert Scerbo and Charles Fox, engineer Charlie LaBatt, Realtor Paul Harsch and Williams College environmental studies professor Sarah Gardner.
Harsch picked up on Dubendorf's theme about Williamstown's zoning restricting all but high-end residential development.
"For so many years, the theme of all the boards, the underlying current ... was let's exclude, close the gates, restrict growth, restrict access," said Harsch, who said he had been working in the town since 1975.
"That seemed to work for a while because the town was wealthy, there were jobs and there was growth. An underlying fear by the boards was that we must contain and limit growth or we'd spoil this beautiful town.
"Guess what? Now we're worried about too many people leaving. ... That's going to impact existing residents' property taxes.
"I'm not for spoiling the town by any means. I love this town. It's a thing of beauty. We're not going to see, under any circumstance, a huge influx of people."
Goodman suggested that a good place for the Planning Board to start is with simplification of the subdivision code itself.
"You might have a development that doesn't fall into one of those criteria," she said. "I don't think the criteria are helpful in creating a development model in your head."
Art emphasized the degree of subjectivity and board discretion in Williamstown's current regulations.
"An objective engineering exercise, that's what developers who are going to invest a lot of money want," he said. "They want some certainty that if they hit these engineering standards and objective outcomes, they're entitled to their permit."
Scerbo echoed that point, noting that developers like to know what to expect before they enter into a process.
Former Planning Board member Sarah Gardner, who now serves on the town's Conservation Commission, suggested the planners look at the concept of a conservation subdivision bylaw, under which denser development is allowed within a parcel on the condition that developers preserve half the acreage for common open space.
"The new thing in planning literature is an agricultural subdivision," Gardner said. "it's the same idea, but the common land is farmland."
Another theme that emerged from the discussion at the March 18 Planning Board meeting was the idea of creating zone-specific development standards.
"Has anyone taken the time to identify parcels in town that have the potential to be developed?" Harsch asked rhetorically. "If you figure it all out and come up with a wonderful scheme and no place to put it into reality, what have you accomplished?
"To build on [Scerbo's] point, maybe the first exercise is to get someone on the Planning Board or some other department to look at the town map and say, 'Yes, something could conceivably go here or could go here.' Why not identify feasible areas and then try to build bylaws and regulations around what you'd like to see in those areas?"
Dunlavey initially indicated that he preferred to focus on incremental changes like the subdivision rules discussion he initiated. But the board seemed receptive to the kind of "big picture" changes proposed from the floor.
Goodman suggested the board engage the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to get advice on how the town could approach major revisions.
Dubendorf said the March 18 meeting was a step in the right direction.
"I've practiced law in Williamstown since 1978, and I've never been invited to come to an open Planning Board meeting to discuss regulations," he said. "I congratulate the board for doing this. Whatever you do, it's important to hear from the people who are trying to wrestle with the regulations."