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Williamstown Planning Board Moves Tuesday Hearing to Elementary School

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — It will be a different setting and, perhaps, a different conversation when the Planning Board holds its Tuesday public hearing on proposed zoning bylaw changes.
A week after the panel packed the Select Board meeting room at Town Hall, the Planning Board has scheduled a 7:30 Tuesday hearing in the auditorium at Williamstown Elementary School.
Since it already had a hearing posted for 7 p.m. at Town Hall, the body will meet there first and plans to immediately recess with the intention of reconvening across town in the larger space half an hour later.
While the room will be bigger, one of the proposals at hand is significantly smaller than the one first proposed and later modified by the board earlier this winter.
Gone from Article A, which redraws the zoning map in the town's General Residence district, is all the language around "detached accessory dwelling units" and "multifamily development."
Remaining in the pared-down article is the division of General Residence by creating four subunits that recognize the way the land in question was developed prior to the town's adoption of zoning in the 1950s.
When the zoning map was created, much of the housing stock in General Residence was nonconforming according to the bylaw as written. That was allowed as a "pre-existing nonconformity," but that legal status has been problematic over the years to homeowners looking to make minor modifications to their homes.
The oft-stated example is the homeowner who wants to replace his or her front porch, but the porch is closer to the street than the bylaw allows. If they wait until the porch rots and collapses, it can be replaced; if they want to be proactive and replace the structure, they cannot.
"The Board believes that by basing our zoning off of the existing layout of our neighborhoods the board will have created a more equitable bylaw," according to explanatory text that accompanies the article. "A bylaw that treats each neighborhood fairly by respecting the existing character of each unique area and allowing all residents to get the full use and enjoyment of their properties."
The bylaw as drafted still would create four new districts within the existing General Residence, but it has the third different nomenclature since the Planning Board first debated the plan this winter.
The current draft calls the new sections GR1, GR2, GR3 and GR4 and leaves the remainder of General Residence not affected by the proposed bylaw as GR5.
The four new districts would require new lines on the zoning bylaw's dimensional table, which defines the appropriate setbacks and lot coverage in each district.
"The dimensional schedule is very important, and that doesn't really have anything to do with small-scale or multi-family housing," Planning Board member Amy Jeschawitz said. "It's helping go from nonconformity to conformity, and that's something that can help with any property owner going forward."
The new draft of Article A, written by Town Planner Andrew Groff with direction from Jeschawitz and Susan Puddester, appears take into consideration concerns expressed at the board's April 3 meeting, where numerous residents argued that the bylaw's language around increasing housing density was inequitable to residents of what was then labeled the "Mill Village" district, now GR1 in the latest incarnation.
There are two other draft bylaws that the Planning Board intends to send to May's town meeting, where a two-thirds majority is needed for passage. Article B would change the town's inclusionary housing bylaw to bring into compliance with state and federal standards around affordable housing. Article C would reduce the minimum lot size required in the town's Rural Residence 2 district, from 2.5 acres per home to 1.5 acres per home.
Article C drew criticism from a couple of different residents of that district at last week's meeting, and Planning Board Chairman Chris Kapiloff said at the meeting that based on new information he did not think he himself could support the change.
As of now, it remains on the list of proposals headed to the annual town meeting, but "I don't know what's going to happen with that," Jeschawitz said. "I think it's something we'll probably discuss further on Tuesday."
Jeschawitz also said that she hopes the town will continue the conversation on second dwelling units and/or duplexes to accomplish the Planning Board's goal of increasing housing options for residents.
"I would really like to us put something forth as a community," she said. "We've been looking at doing something in regard to housing for the past 16 years. We've done several studies, etc., but we never really decide to actually do something about it.
"If you look back several years at any of the [zoning changes] proposed, the first reaction has been, 'no,' and then we're able to move to a compromise and move something forward. I think we can with this, as well."

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Bennington Museum Opens its Doors

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
BENNINGTON, Vt. — With less than three hours to go before opening his institution to the public, Bennington Museum Executive Director Joshua Torrance was on Cloud 9.
Or, at least, close.
"I'm actually sitting on top of a tall ladder adjusting lights as I talk to you," Torrance said on Friday morning.
The Main Street museum, which shut down in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was making final preparations for its 1 p.m. opening.
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