Williamstown Select Board Discusses Proposed Zoning Changes
"I agree with your opening statement," Select Board member Andrew Hogeland said Monday night. "This is one of the more radical zoning changes I've seen."
What Hogeland said next will draw seconds from residents who have begun lining up to criticize the proposed zoning bylaw amendments.
"If you densify all these neighborhoods, including the rural neighborhoods, you are changing the character of the town," Hogeland said. "This strikes me as more than necessary to attract more housing to town."
Allowing the possibility of higher density is the intent of the Planning Board's proposal, which would create four new zoning districts in the town's residential core and allow — by right or by special permit — more dwelling units per property throughout a large chunk of what now is known as the town's General Residence District.
Planning Board Chairman Chris Kapiloff was before the Select Board on Monday to explain the proposal, and he made no secret about his board's motivation.
"Densification is what we're going for," Kapiloff said. "Being greener necessarily means fewer 5,000- and 6,000-square foot homes.
"The Mass Housing Partnership tells us this is what the next generation is looking for. We need smaller places for smaller families and single people to live. … Every family that can't afford to buy here and send kids to the school is tens of thousands of dollars that don't come from the state and go to the school. We need to be a diverse town.
"If we're going to be a family-friendly town, we need to densify our central neighborhood. That's just my opinion, but I think the statistics back it up."
The Planning Board developed its bylaw proposal after months of study supported by the housing partnership.
Part of the proposed bylaw simply seeks to bring existing homes into compliance with the bylaw, which was enacted in the 1970s, after most of the General Residence district was developed.
"Being [pre-existing] non-conforming isn't a big deal until your front porch needs repair," Kapiloff said. "You can't just tear it down and rebuild what's there. You have to go to the Zoning Board of Appeals. We on the Planning Board feel we have to eliminate some of those things to allow people to do things to their home that's already there."
The other part of the bylaw has generated more concern among some town residents.
As currently drafted, the bylaw would create four districts: Village Residence 1, Village Residence 2, Village Residence 3 and Mill Village Residence.
The largest of the four, VR1, which includes Cole Avenue from Church Street south and across Main Street (Route 2), would allow for up to three dwelling units per structure by special permit from the ZBA.
The Mill Village Residence District, which would cover neighborhoods nearest to the Hoosic River and former Photech Mill site, would allow up to six units per structure by right and up to eight by special permit.
In between those two, VR2 would allow up to four units by right and up to six by special permit. In a prior iteration, this district was labeled Mill Village 2.
The smallest (geographically) of the four new districts, currently labeled VR3, covers the west side of Southworth Street and both sides of that street north of School Street. There, the bylaw would allow up to six units per structure by right and up to eight by special permit. In an earlier draft of the bylaw, this district was labeled Campus Residence and abuts Williams College's campus to the west.
"A lot of [VR3] is Williams College owned," Kapiloff said. "Most of those homes are very large in size and were single family homes. Because the college owns most of them, we could possibly foresee see — through no information Williams College has given us, just our own surmising — a time when the college might want to expand its faculty housing. We did not think eight units in some of the very large buildings was out of character."
Hogeland challenged the Planning Board's rationale.
"I'd be wary of establishing zoning based on who currently owns it," he said. "Williams may not own these [lots] two or three years from now. The bigger thing for me is the significant densification opportunities this presents in all the neighborhoods.
"This is a pretty significant change, and it's not based on the existing structure. You could build an entirely new building with six to eight units."
Select Board Chairman Hugh Daley, who noted that he lives on the east side of Southworth Street, across from the proposed VR3 district, suggested that the bylaw "grandfather" existing structures for greater densification but limit the scope of new construction in the residential neighborhood.
"Could the zoning law be written so that if you're in the existing envelope, you can do six to eight [units], but if you tear down, you can only build a three-unit house?" Daley asked.
After Town Planner Andrew Groff confirmed that was possible, Daley continued.
"That, to me, is the crux of this one," he said. "One way to solve the problem may be to say, if they keep the existing building and can squeeze in six units, go for it. The head count isn't the problem for us. It's the possibility of building a series of six- to eight-unit buildings."
That said, Daley also thanked the Planning Board for its "thoughtful proposals" and encouraged town residents to provide feedback, either at the planners' next meeting on April 10 or by emailing the town's email@example.com account.
Hogeland picked up on Daley's suggestion about grandfathering existing structures for greater by-right densification and added, "I'd expand that to all four districts."
Kapiloff replied that even new construction in the proposed district would be constrained under the bylaw as drafted.
"The dimensional schedule only allows up to 40 percent coverage in [Village Residence 3]," Kapiloff said. "We want to give people the ability to make units that economically make sense for the time, but it doesn't allow them to build significantly larger structures on the property.
"We don't want to be in a position where people want to work here but there's no place for them to live."
Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas backed up Kapiloff on that last point.
"Fred Puddester shared with me that that is the case," Thomas said. "[Williams is] hiring a relatively large number of new faculty ... but the retiring faculty is retiring in the community. Williams College is very concerned about a housing shortage for the people they'll be hiring in the next five to eight years."
Puddester, the college's vice president for finance and administration, is married to Planning Board member Susan Puddester. Another member of the Planning Board, Chris Winters, is an associate provost at the college.
Other proposed zoning bylaws crafted by the Planning Board would expand opportunities for major residential multifamily development and reduce the lot requirement for new homes in the Rural Residence 2 District.
The former proposal, labeled Article B by the Planning Board, would, among other things, change the language around design requirements for multifamily development.
Currently, the bylaw reads, in part: "To maintain the visual scale of the community, each dwelling unit shall have its own exterior entrance and three exposures; there shall be not more than four dwelling units in any structure; multifamily structures shall be clustered in groups, with not more than 16 dwelling units in any group, and with buildings within groups separated from each other by not less than twice the required side yard."
The proposed bylaw would replace that text with the following: "In order to maintain the visual scale of the community each dwelling shall be designed to be harmonious with the architectural vernacular of its neighborhood, unless in the opinion of the Planning Board a departure from that vernacular would serve an important community design purpose. In no instance shall any structure contain unenclosed stairways or blank facades lacking windows or doors facing a street."
The Planning Board's draft Article C would change the minimum lot size in RR2 from 2.5 acres to 1.5 acres for a single-family home. Kapiloff noted that while the proposed bylaw reduces the acreage requirement, it maintains the current road frontage minimum, so the visual impact to passers-by will be non-existent.
Tags: housing development, zoning,
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