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An agenda with six public hearings draws a large crowd for Thursday's meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Williamstown ZBA Makes Hard Choices at Marathon Meeting

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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The Girard family at  907 North Hoosac want to replace the red exterior door at left to allow the first-floor bumpout to be converted to a half bathroom. A deck to allow access to the back yard was rejected despite their neighbor's support.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Thursday's meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals was a study in irony.

The board members rejected a request from a resident they clearly appeared to want to help and approved a special permit under a bylaw about which several members clearly have reservations.

In both instances, the ZBA members acted in accordance with the law, putting their personal inclinations aside in applying the legal standards as best they saw fit.

The first instance regarded an applicant trying to modify his home to make it more functional for his family. The second involved the creation of a "mother-in-law" apartment in an accessory building.

Michael and Carissa Girard failed in their bid to receive a zoning variance for a deck that would have gone 2 feet into the required setback at their 907 North Hoosac Road home. Susan Revotskie succeeded won approval to convert a barn to an apartment at 319 Luce Road.

The latter decision arose from the 2012 bylaw that allows residents to create a secondary dwelling unit on their property in a building that has existed for 10 years or more.

Several members of the Zoning Board of Appeals spoke against passage of the bylaw at annual town meeting, and they reiterated their objections on Thursday night.

"When we changed this bylaw a couple of years ago, I was against it strongly for a lot of the reasons you suggested," ZBA member Lawrence Wright said in reply to an abutter who objected to Revotskie's petition. "However, the town voted it in in its wisdom despite knowing it would cause problems every time it came up.

"My feeling is this is exactly the situation the town wanted to allow. Even though I thought it was a lousy change at the time, I think it's clear this is what the town wanted to allow."

"This" is the conversion of the barn into a three-bedroom apartment that Revotskie said will allow her family to live on her property. She explained that her family previously had converted the barn to a study, with the town's approval, but that use is no longer a priority.

"Family needs have changed," she told the board.

And the barn, which needs major repairs, is not worth the investment only for use as a study, she said. In addition to creating needed living space for her extended family, the conversion to an apartment will allow her to preserve the structure, which predates the 1908 construction of her home.

"Preserving local architectural structures is a priority in most states," Revotskie said.

"I believe the residential quality of my neighbors will not be degraded by the improvement of a building and landscaping. On the other hand, I think an abandoned barn in an overgrown lot might decrease property values."

Stephanie Scott and Richard Alley, who live next door to Revotskie at 301 Luce Road, strongly disagreed that the secondary dwelling on her property would increase the value of their own.

In fact, Scott told the board, the conversion of the barn will dramatically change the character of their lot.

"In 1999, when we bought it, it was the property, not the house, that appealed to us," Scott said. "The house we live in is not in proximity to any other house."

But it is in close proximity to the barn, which is an attractive part of their viewshed — as a barn, Scott said.

"We had our real estate agent look into this, and she assured us the local codes prevented the barn from being anything but a barn," Scott said. "Over the years, many people have commented on how special our lot is. The house is nice, but our location is special. I bet there are many such locations in Williamstown — special, private, quiet places.

"This perception, I'm certain, adds to the value of our home."

Scott pointed out that Revotskie's plans for the use of the secondary dwelling may not always be shared by future owners of 319 Luce Road.

"Will I have an Air B&B rental next to us?" Scott asked. "What prevents that from happening? We can't rely on Susan's good intentions down the road."

Revotskie argued that the barn is no closer to Scott and Alley's home than existing homes in the neighborhood are to one another, a point that spoke to the bylaw's provision that, "the second dwelling will not be substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood."

The ZBA members found that Revotskie's application complied with the bylaw, but they were able to address a couple of Scott's specific concerns. They required that the secondary dwelling not use wood stoves for heating and that Revotskie install either a fence or vegetative screening to block the neighbor's view of the converted barn.

The ZBA members also complained, again, that the mother-in-law apartment was vague and "dropped in the lap" of the Zoning Board.

Planning Board Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz spoke from the floor of Thursday's meeting to defend the bylaw and point out the Planning Board, which drafted the bylaw, is looking into modifications this year that may clarify its application.

"Something we need to consider as a community is housing needs in our community have changed over time," Jeschawitz said, citing the success of the Cable Mills apartments on Water Street. "The single family home isn't what everyone wants to live in anymore. People are looking for things that are less expensive, more accessible.

"As a community, we need to start allowing some other types of housing in our community."

While Revotskie's petition drew sharp criticism from her neighbor, Girard said he had spoken to his neighbors about a plan to install a 4-foot wide deck on the side of his house and no one objected. In fact, he said one of his neighbors went to Town Hall to support the application.

And, in fact, when Girard's application came up at a prior meeting, the members of the Zoning Board themselves suggested an alternative that might have solved his problem without obtaining a variance.

The issue involves the conversion of part of the 907 North Hoosac Road residence to a half-bathroom. That conversion would eliminate an exterior door at the front of the home. The Girard family's proposed solution was to build a deck that would allow people to walk along the side of the house and enter through a rear door.

Such a deck would have encroached into the required 15-foot setback from the property line, requiring a variance.

The ZBA members expressed sympathy for Girard's situation but found that Massachusetts General Law prevented them from granting the variance in this instance.

The applicable state law is Chapter 40A-10, which reads, in part, that the ZBA could grant a variance if it found that a hardship was created, "owing to circumstances relating to the soil conditions, shape, or topography of such land or structures and especially affecting such land or structures but not affecting generally the zoning district in which it is located."

ZBA Chairman Andrew Hoar said the 907 North Hoosac Road property has no topography issues that make it unique from the rest of the neighborhood, a point that Girard conceded.


Julie Sniezek of Guntlow & Associates presents a special permit application related to the Mount Greylock Regional School building project.

The state law goes on to say, "relief may be granted without … substantially derogating from the intent or purpose of such ordinance or bylaw."

"Unfortunately, with 17 feet [between the house and the line] anything wider than a 2-foot walkway and you're in that situation," Hoar said. "The question is can it be granted without derogating from the purpose of the bylaw."

Girard argued that strict enforcement of the zoning regulation did create a hardship for his family and, potentially, other homeowners.

"If you tried to take the zoning law we have today and tried to recreate Williamstown, you couldn't do it," he said. "For me to continue living here the way we'd like to, to me, the variance significantly … adds to our quality of life and allows our house to change to meet our current needs."

The ZBA voted 4-1 to reject his application.

"I do not see anything unique in this topography, and I do intend to vote no, unfortunately," ZBA member Keith Davis said. "I agree permitting this would improve your life, your family's life. But the variance requirements from the state don't allow us to do so."

In other business on Thursday, the ZBA granted special permits needed for continuing work on the Mount Greylock Regional School building project, granted special permits needed for Aubuchon Hardware to convert the former Agway building on Main Street, allowed a temporary modular addition to the Williams College Children's Center and upheld a 1982 parking order governing an apartment at 1174 Main St.


Tags: housing,   ZBA,   

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