WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board has opened a months-long effort to gather public feedback about potentially changing zoning bylaws to open up options for new housing.
Working with a grant from the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, the board has created a website to collect public comments and plans at least two public events to solicit input — the first on Saturday, Feb. 4, at the Williamstown Youth Center.
For years, Planning Board members have said they think the town's bylaws are too restrictive and need to be modified to allow the kind of housing that the market demands. Now, the panel is ready to see if the rest of the town agrees with them and start working on changes that can go to town meeting, perhaps as early as May 2018.
Although diverse housing options have been a concern for the board for some time — leading to 2012's "in-law apartment" bylaw — a recent addition to the town's housing market helped spur the board's current initiative.
"The big catalyst was Cable Mills," said Williamstown Community Development Director Andrew Groff, who serves the board as the town planner. "The speed at which it was occupied really surprised people and showed pent-up demand for housing types that are not the single family house. We want to figure out how we can have people who want to live like that be welcomed in our community."
The Cable Mills apartments, an historic renovation of a Water Street factory complex, would not be allowed under existing bylaws anywhere in town. A special overlay district was created to accommodate the complex, which features a mix of mixed-rate and subsidized apartments.
There are a range of other options between single-family homes and large apartment complexes like Cable Mills, and currently the town's code does not allow the addition of any new housing stock in any of those options.
"The big one we hear from [real estate agents] is, generally, the era of the large, single-family home on a large, rural parcel seems to be on the decline," Groff said. "And modern consumers are really interested in walkability and the quality of the neighborhood. That seems to be a national trend as well, if you look at research and trade publications and things."
Groff said Williamstown offers amenities in its downtown that would be a draw for new residents if there was the housing stock available to accommodate them.
"If you look at the mile radius around campus, Williams College is our biggest employer, and they do actively surround the downtown, so if we're talking about being able to walk to work, walk to the gym — or walk to Spring Street," he said. "You don't have to be affiliated with the college. Walk to a restaurant, go to a movie at Images. There are lots of services in the downtown area.
"If we promote people living within walking distance from Spring and Water streets, it's only going to make them stronger as business districts. Maybe, eventually, there will be a market for something like a small grocer."
In addition to being the town's largest employer, Williams College also is the town's biggest landlord, maintaining about 130 residential units for faculty and staff.
The administrator responsible for that aspect of the college's operation said he sees a need for diverse housing options.
"We're really getting demand for the spectrum of size and unit types, and I think it's important for us to maintain that broader portfolio," Williams Director of Real Estate and Legal Affairs Jamie Art said. "I think if we had more apartments, we'd be able to rent those out pretty easily. If we had more townhouse-type stuff, I think those would be attractive, too. I think we have a pretty good number of single family homes in terms of supplying the demand that's there."
Some of the most popular housing options for faculty and staff include apartments above the businesses on Spring Street, units the college rents at Cable Mills and the renovated Southworth School next door to Williamstown Elementary School. Contrast that with a four-unit apartment house the college owns on Green River Road (Route 43) well south of campus.
"Some people want to live out there, and that's good, but it's not in high demand," Art said. "Most people want to be closer to campus, closer to the center of town, closer to the elementary school."
A growing segment of the market that the college would like to serve is "part-time resident" faculty and staff. Art said he knows of maybe a dozen college employees who work at Williams but have spouses and partners employed in the Pioneer Valley, Boston or elsewhere and are looking for a modest home for three or four nights a week.
"If there was someone who said, ‘I have this housing stock in town, close to campus and could be rented out by the room,' I don't even know if that's permissible under the zoning bylaws, but there would be demand for it," he said.
At Town Hall, officials are trying to figure out how the town bylaws might be changed to reflect 21st century demands.
"We did a great job converting Cable Mills to that kind of building, and we've got Highland Woods, and we're going to do something at Photech, and that's been great," Groff said. "We used to be really good at building detached single family housing. But this whole middle? Think about other places in the country where you travel, and you see different types of housing mixes, and they don't depart from the scale of a single family house. They're all the same scale.
"And there are actually a lot of examples of them in Williamstown today, but they were all created before zoning. We've made all those illegal."
The Planning Board wants residents to visit the website it created through Boston web designer coUrbanize, look at maps and related planning documents (like the 2002 Master Plan, a 2013 housing needs assessment and last year's Economic Development report) and share their thoughts.
Groff and the Planning Board will be monitoring the site and answering any questions that residents ask through it, he said.
On Feb. 4, the board will host an open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Williamstown Youth Center where residents will be able to chat with Planning Board members informally about the issue. And in early April, the board plans to hold a discussion panel.
"[The website] was Mass Housing's idea," Groff said. "They think it's an innovative way to generate more community engagement beyond your typical public meeting that, frankly, is hard for some people to get to."
From the website, which is live now, to the April panel, it is all about listening for the Planning Board, Groff said.
"If anything is going to go to town meeting, it will be in 2018," he said. "The Planning Board is not focused on getting something to town meeting as soon as possible. They're focused on doing it right, and doing it right means having buy-in and having the community accept the idea well before it's taken to town meeting.
"It's a community driven-process. It's not a Planning Board-driven process."
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