Editor's Note: On Tuesday morning, Affordable Housing Trust Chairman Tom Sheldon rescheduled the board's next meeting to Thursday, Feb. 8, in anticipation of Wednesday's snowstorm.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The board of the town's Affordable Housing Trust will vote Wednesday Thursday whether it wants Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity to build two or three homes on a Cole Avenue parcel acquired by the trust.
The non-profit in December told the trustees that it was leaning toward building three three-bedroom homes on the property. Although the lot, at the corner of Cole and Maple Street, is zoned for two building lots, Habitat could subdivide it into three lots either by permission of the town's Planning Board or by applying the Chapter 40B provision in Massachusetts General Law.
After January's community forum where a number of neighbors objected to the idea of three homes on the parcel, Habitat came back to the Affordable Housing Trust for direction before the non-profit goes any further in its design process.
On Thursday, three of the four trustees who attended the meeting appeared willing to make that determination, but they voted unanimously to schedule one more meeting to give more neighbors a chance to attend.
One Maple Street resident told the trustees that the neighborhood was not given sufficient notice that the board planned to make a final decision at the Feb. 1 session and accused the trustees of lacking transparency in their approach to the parcel.
Trustee Stan Parese summarized the board's position that its process — from the initial search for building lots to acquire to its development of a request for proposals to developers to its selection of Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity to its subsequent discussions with the non-profit — has been conducted in the open.
"Consistently, it's been an expression on the board's part to engage the neighborhood, and that's integral to Habitat's approach as well," Parese said. "In terms of us being a public body … the Open Meeting Law requires us, two days before a public meeting, to post it. Period, full stop. The idea of Habitat sending you invitations was above and beyond that."
Habitat did separately notify the abutters of the Feb. 1 meeting. Maple Street resident Madeline Levy objected that the invitation did not indicate that the trust would hold a vote on the matter at last Thursday's session.
However, the single-item agenda posted on the town's website and on the front of Town Hall clearly indicated the possibility of a vote.
"We just feel like we're being hoodwinked, and that's an awful feeling," Levy said. "That's an awful, awful feeling. … If people knew this would be a voting meeting, I think this room would be filled."
Given that level of concern on the part of some neighbors, Parese was the first trustee to suggest waiting a week to make a decision.
"I don't want the neighborhood to feel like we're pulling a fast one," Parese said. "Goodness knows, that's so much removed from the imagination of anyone involved in this process.
"We've all got any number of things we need to be doing at any given time … But if saying, 'Let's all come back in two weeks,' doesn't hurt [Habitat] badly and makes the neighborhood feel better … I say this, grudgingly, I could live with that. I really don't want anyone to feel like we're not being engaging."
The co-chair of the Northern Berkshire Habitat board asked the trustees to consider making a decision at its Feb. 1 meeting, especially since the decision likely would be one that satisfies the majority of the neighborhood.
"You guys can have another meeting," Elisabeth Goodman said. "But isn't the consensus two houses? If you hold a meeting in a week, isn't it still going to be two houses? We're not going to do one house, and I don't think anyone feels comfortable doing three.
"I don't mind giving more notice, but, in my experience, you can give as much notice as you want, and someone will still say, 'I didn't get enough notice.' "
Parese sympathized but still argued for another meeting on the topic.
"I agree," he told Goodman. "Without taking a vote, it looks like it's heading in the direction of two [houses].
"If we can use that second meeting productively, as opposed to a wheel-spinning exercise, if we invite the neighborhood to come and say, 'Let's hear your thoughts,' … If we vote two houses, when Habitat sits down with its architect, and it can say, ‘Here are some design concerns that have been explicitly expressed …
"If we can get that level of participation and buy-in and people are feeling better about the process, that's worth it to me."
Goodman told the trustees that the next Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity board meeting is Feb. 13, and it would be helpful for the non-profit to have the town's direction before then. Habitat already has begun marketing the first home [it plans to build sequentially] to income-eligible families and wants to build it during the 2018 construction season.
The trustees voted 3-0-1 to meet again on Wednesday, Feb. 7, Thursday, Feb. 8, at 5 p.m. to make a final decision. Chairman Tom Sheldon abstained from the vote.
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