Trustee Anne O'Connor, who fills the Select Board's seat on the Affordable Housing Trust board, made the case for building three houses on the property.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The trustees of the town's Affordable Housing Trust on Thursday told Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity to proceed with a plan to build two houses on a Cole
Avenue lot the trust purchased for the purpose of creating subsidized housing.
The non-profit asked the trustees for direction after Habitat generated a proposal that would have sited three single-family homes on the half-acre lot — in keeping with the trustees' previously stated desire to maximize the number of units on the site.
That three-house plan — which would have required subdividing the existing two building lots on the property — met considerable opposition from the neighborhood.
Abutters first expressed their concerns to a community forum hosted by Habitat for Humanity in January and then brought the same objections before the trustees in their Feb. 1 meeting.
On Thursday, the trustees voted, 5-1, to direct Habitat for Humanity to proceed with a two-house approach in recognition of the concerns from abutters.
Trustee Anne O'Connor cast the dissenting vote after explaining that she felt it was important the body hold true to the principle of maximizing home ownership opportunities for income-eligible families.
Stan Parese, who voted in the majority, reminded his colleagues that neighborhood concerns were on their mind from the day they started the process of developing the lot at the corner of Cole Avenue and Maple Street.
"In our [request for proposals] as a trust, which predated in any formal way Habitat's response … we explicitly, as part of our criteria, set forth that we wanted density on the site while being sensitive to the neighborhood," Parese said.
Trustee Ruth Harrison, who attended the Jan. 19 public forum along with O'Connor and Trustee Patrick Quinn, remarked that she thought the process had gone well because the board had listened to the residents of the neighborhood.
Several of the trustees, including Chairman Thomas Sheldon, said they were surprised when Habitat for Humanity was able to develop a plan that fit three houses on the lot.
"Initially, I was very excited about the three-houses idea," Trustee Liz Costley said. "It seemed like a cool community within the larger community. Having heard other points of view, I'm excited about the idea of two houses on that lot."
Last week, the trustees appeared on the verge of making their decision about whether to go with two or three houses, but they were persuaded that another public meeting was needed to get more input from neighbors who did not understand the purpose of the Feb. 1 agenda item. One resident said if that purpose had been more clear, the Town Hall meeting room would have been filled with concerned citizens.
On Thursday, no residents who did not address the trustees on Feb. 1 rose to address the panel. The only comments from the floor came from a resident who had previously made his arguments at the Jan. 19 forum, in a letter to the trustees and at the Feb. 1 meeting.
Though she knew her vote was destined to be in the minority, O'Connor laid out her reasons for standing by the trust's intent to make maximum use of the property.
First, she reminded the meeting that, by right, the two building lots in the AHT-owned parcel could have held two duplexes, according to the town's zoning bylaw. So three three-bedroom homes on the site would not be to a stretch.
Then, she offered her main reason for voting against the two-house plan.
"I'm in favor of three houses," O'Connor said. "I know that makes me unpopular with the neighbors who are in the room. … However, I think it's a measure that's needed for the future of the community. What this speaks to is changing housing practices, changing needs in our community. We have a need for more rental properties, more small homes, more opportunities for families and seniors to have housing they can afford in this community."
O'Connor noted that she lives in Church Corner, a town-supported affordable housing project at the corner of Cole Avenue and Church Street, not far from the parcel in question. The Church Corner apartments, in the former St. Raphael Catholic church, have the capacity to house up to 20 people with "no ill effect on the neighborhood," she said.
"I feel for some of the neighbors, there's a concern: This is change, and who are these people who are going to be coming in [at Cole and Maple]?" O'Connor said. "Well, they're the same as all of us. They're going to work in our community and build their lives in our community."
Sheldon thanked O'Connor for offering her point of view and sharing her perspective as a resident of Church Corner.
"I personally prefer a two-home solution here," Sheldon said. "I do so because I do understand and respect the viewpoints of the neighbors here."
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Residents repudiate neighborhood's racially restrictive origins in a commitment to inclusion.
In July of 2020, residents of the Williamstown neighborhood comprising Berkshire Drive, Colonial Avenue and Orchard Lane came together to address, in a united way, the racially restrictive covenant which was filed on the land records by the subdivision founder in 1939, and subsequently referenced in many of their property deeds. Though the racially restrictive clause had been deemed legally unenforceable (1948 Supreme Court Shelley vs. Kraemer), unlawful (Civil Rights Act of 1968 ), and void (1969 Massachusetts General Laws), a range of voices expressed the ongoing pain caused by the presence of the covenant.
To acknowledge and directly confront this racist history, its associated harm, and continued impact, and to clearly express this neighborhood's commitment to inclusion, both now and in the future, the neighborhood has taken the following actions:
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