Affordable Housing Trustee Stan Parese discusses the purchase and sales agreement on two town-owned housing lots.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Affordable Housing Trust on Wednesday accepted a proposal to develop two town-owned building lots, but it remained open to further discussion about how many housing units could fit on one of them.
The trust voted, 7-0, to authorize a purchase-and-sales agreement with Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, the only respondent to the request for proposal the trustees issued on lots it purchased on Summer Street and at the corner of Cole Avenue and Maple Street.
Officials from the North Adams-based non-profit, an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, have expressed a preference for putting one single-family home on each of the two lots, a preference they stated again at Wednesday's meeting on the third floor of Town Hall.
"Cole Avenue is an awful small lot," Habitat Board President Paul Austin said, referring to the .46-acre lot.
Habitat for Humanity board members also noted the slope at the property's west end and their parent organization's preference for homes that give homeowners yards. Austin said the group had explored "zero-lot-line" homes, a model that maximizes density, in the past and gotten negative feedback from the prospective homebuyer.
The chairwoman of the town's Planning Board addressed the Affordable Housing Trust on Wednesday to ask whether the trustees and Habitat would consider a "higher density" development on the Cole Avenue lot.
"Some of you are aware that the Planning Board over the last year has been looking at housing in Williamstown," Amy Jeschawitz said. "The initiative we're looking at is changing the current zoning to allow more multi-family housing by-right in town.
"We have targeted the area around Cole Avenue, around Williamstown Elementary School, that whole corridor. That is the most desirable place right now for new people moving to our community to live. It's walkable. It's close to the college. It's where people want to be."
Any proposals from the Planning Board likely would not go to town meeting until at least May 2018. But as an affordable housing project (the land was purchased with Community Preservation Act funds, and the homeowner would need to make at or less than 80 percent of the area median income to qualify), the development would qualify for development under the commonwealth's Chapter 40B provision. Under Chapter 40B, homes can be built that otherwise would not conform to local zoning bylaws.
Jeschawitz suggested that the Habitat project could be ahead of the curve -- meeting a high-density target eyed by her board before any changes are made to the zoning bylaw to allow similar multi-family housing in market-based developments.
The housing trust's RFP was agnostic on the subject of multi-family housing. On the subject of density, its preferences for projects are stated as "More on the site, the better while remaining sensitive to neighborhood."
If Wednesday's meeting was any indication, the neighborhood's sensibilities may run counter to the idea of multiple housing units on the site.
Maple Street resident Madeline Levy told the trustees she objected to the idea of multiple residences on the property and that she was speaking on behalf of at least one of her neighbors who could not attend the meeting.
"The trend has been away from having multi-family houses in the neighborhood," Levy said. That's what I'm in favor of. I think that lot should have one home on it."
Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity Board members Elisabeth Goodman and Keith Davis, both Williamstown residents, said they had spoken with residents in the Cole-Maple neighborhood who "expressed a preference for a single-family home."
Jeschawitz countered that the the Cole Avenue neighborhood is largely composed of homes that predate the town's zoning bylaws.
"If you look at the historical makeup of that neighborhood, you can see how that has expanded and grown through the decades," Jeschawitz said. "The lot you have at Cole and Maple Street is in a multi-family area. Directly across the street is a two-family house. Directly across from that is Church Corner [a 2011 affordable housing development] with eight units on a slightly larger lot size.
"If you compare it to lots in that neighborhood, most are ranging from .1 to .25 acres and some already have multi-family housing on them. … What I'm saying to you is, there is a higher use for that .46 acres than to put a single family home on it. You can fit a duplex or three or four units on there. I know it can be done. Habitat in Pittsfield has done duplexes in the past.
"We're not going to be making any more land in Williamstown. We have what we have right now. And from what we've found over the past year, that area of town is very desirable."
Goodman, the Habitat board member and an attorney, negotiated the purchase-and-sales agreement with trust board member and attorney Stanley Parese.
She suggested that the idea of increasing the number of homes on the Cole Avenue site should not hold up the board's decision on the Habitat proposal, which the AHT was considering for a second straight meeting.
"We responded to your RFP, and we're the only responder," Goodman said. "We can look at this issue, but I don't think this should hold up the agreement tonight. The proposal we have and what Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity usually does is single-family homes. If you proposed a certain number of units, we could have vetted it with our architect.
"We're willing to say we'll consider [higher density development] but not bind ourselves right now to a multi-family house."
The trustees' Wednesday vote to approve the purchase-and-sales agreement is not the end of the conversation. The two sides and the Department of Housing and Community Development will need to negotiate the final documents that will control the project, and, in accordance with the RFP, Habitat for Humanity will have to hold a community outreach session to get feedback from the neighborhood about the design of the projects.
Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity does plan to develop the Cole Avenue site first, and it hopes to have shovels in the ground as soon as April 1, 2018, Austin told the trustees on Wednesday.
In other business, the trust approved, 7-0, its 14th award under the DeMayo Mortgage Assistance Program. The $15,000 grant will go toward the down payment for the home of a family of four, first-time homebuyers who have been renting in town for seven years.
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