Old Debates Rehashed as Williamstown Planners Try to Focus on Future
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — As the Planning Board continues its job of helping the town look to the future, past battles continue to color the conversation.
The Planning Board on Tuesday held its second meeting since May's town election and the town meeting at which the prior board had hoped to bring an ambitious proposal to revamp the town's zoning bylaws before voters.
Three members of the five-member board remain from the group that ultimately decided to spike the proposed bylaw amendments.
And residents who turned out at Tuesday's meeting included many of the same group that argued vociferously against the more permissive zoning in the runup to town meeting.
Planning Board Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz tried to keep Tuesday's meeting focused on a discussion of the current state of zoning and how it hampers the creation of housing options that the town last year identified through a study assisted by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership.
But, inevitably, the proposed — and discarded — solutions remain very much on the minds of the public.
"I'm not sure a regulatory regime you're describing addresses these problems," David Langston said midway through a 2 1/2-hour meeting at Town Hall.
"I don't think we've described one," replied board member Stephanie Boyd, one of two newcomers on the panel.
"I'm referring to the last one proposed," Langston answered.
Langston continued the line of criticism he opened in the spring, telling the board that its previously articulated proposal was not based on enough research and that, in fact, no amount of zoning changes can address the issue of shortfalls in smaller, more moderately priced homes that some town officials have advocated.
"As I keep saying, this is not a problem the Planning Board can address," Langston said.
Longtime board member Chris Winters, while allowing that zoning changes may not be the "silver bullet," disagreed that the idea that they have no role.
"It is simultaneously not not the Planning Board's job," he told Langston. "The Planning Board creates the regulatory regime around which any piece of dirt is developed in town."
The board Tuesday engaged in a preliminary discussion of how some targeted zoning changes could address specific needs that have been identified.
Community Development Director Andrew Groff, who provides professional support to the board, said his office frequently fields requests from landowners and developers who want to engage in projects that may be beneficial to the town but which are not allowed under current bylaws — or which may be allowed but only through a lengthy and often contentious special permit process.
Groff laid out one hypothetical in the Meacham Street neighborhood.
"All those rentals, except for a handful, are in General Residence," Groff said, referring to one of the town's zoning districts. "They can only be single-family homes on lots with frontages bigger and longer than exist there."
The current development, like many of the town's residential neighborhoods, predates zoning.
"Someone might want to take three Williams rental units and put up townhomes there. That cannot be done today."
Boyd, who was among those urging the Planning Board to slow down in April, as a member of the board asked if there are ways to avoid unintended consequences of more permissive zoning.
"One thing I was worried about is if we allow greater densities … the whole street turns into something we don't want," Boyd said. "Is there a way you can do zoning and say, 'We will allow, say, three multi-family units on this street?'"
Groff said he did not know of any such mechanism in the law but could research the question.
Another resident in the room, attorney Stan Parese, was more definitive.
"Generally speaking, every property in the zone has to be treated the same," Parese said.
While the Planning Board's discussion about allowing greater density is tied to a perception that there is not enough moderately-priced, market-rate housing, the conversation frequently, as it did on Tuesday, drifts into discussions of subsidized housing, what town officials frequently call "capital A" affordable housing.
In that vein, resident Roger Lawrence raised an issue that predates even the bylaw debate from earlier this year.
"Is there some reason [the Town Garage site] is completely off the table [for affordable housing]?" Lawrence asked.
Planning Board member Susan Puddester, who worked with the nonprofit Higher Ground in the wake of 2011's Tropical Storm Irene, attempted to give some of the background on how that site, also known as 59 Water St., was very actively considered for subsidized housing.
She explained that the town's then Affordable Housing Committee had issued a request for proposals for development of two town-owned parcels: 59 Water St. and 330 Cole Ave., the former PhoTech Mill site. The town received two proposals, one addressing only the Cole Avenue site and the other utilizing both properties.
The housing committee had recommended the town accept the latter proposal. The Select Board overruled the committee, entering instead into a development deal with a group led by Berkshire Housing Development Corp., which only seeks to build housing at the former PhoTech property.
No one at Tuesday's meeting could fully explain why 59 Water St. site was rejected, a decision which precipitated the resignation of several members of the AHC. Groff pointed out that the former Town Garage site was challenged from a development standpoint but agreed some of those challenges have been addressed by the recent replacement of an undersized culvert that carries Christmas Brook below the property and into the Green River.
"There's been a lot of work down there," Groff said. "The culvert situation is being solved, and that ultimately makes that site more developable."
"The word 'affordable' always comes up, but what we're talking about is housing in general," Jeschawitz said, attempting to steer the conversation back to the zoning bylaws that are the purview of the Planning Board.
Winters took the opportunity to use the story of the Spruces Mobile Home Park — lost in the aftermath of Irene — to explain how restrictive zoning stifles development.
"The reason we had the Spruces was it predated zoning," Winters said. "Imagine trying to build a 40-acre mobile home park in Williamstown today. It's not going to happen."
In other business on Tuesday, the Planning Board set up the first of two "office hour" sessions it plans to hold outside of its regular meetings to allow residents to share ideas with board members outside of the more formal monthly meetings.
Winters and Boyd will be at the Log on Spring Street at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 1. Jeschawitz and Alexander Carlisle will meet at the Chef's Hat on Simonds Road on Saturday, Aug. 18, at 8:30 a.m.
Going forward, the board discussed holding the informal sessions each month just before and just after its regular monthly meetings — always with two members of the panel and rotating which members will be in attendance.
Tags: affordable housing, housing, Planning Board, zoning,
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