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Williamstown Planning Board Debates Accessory Dwelling Unit Bylaw

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Planning Board members Chris Winters, left, says the board has three 'meaty' issues to deal with. At right is fellow Planner Alex Carlisle.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board on Tuesday narrowed its discussion to three main points of contention in a potential zoning bylaw proposal it hopes to bring to May's town meeting.
For months, the board has been debating an amendment to the town's bylaw that would liberalize the rules around "accessory dwelling units" or ADUs. Currently, residents are not permitted, by law, to convert single-family homes into two-family homes, and detached ADUs are allowed but the rules around them are so restrictive that they rarely have been permitted.
The Planning Board last spring withdrew a more ambitious proposal to liberalize the town's housing bylaw in the face of vocal opposition. In the summer, it decided that the ADUs were one area where the town could make incremental changes to allow a little more housing flexibility.
Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz has expressed a hope that the board can have a draft bylaw in place early in the winter to allow plenty of time for public feedback prior to May -- addressing the criticism in May 2018 that some in town felt the process was rushed.
On Tuesday, the board went through a number of elements of the proposed bylaw, identifying where the five members have common ground and where potential sticking points remain.
"There are three meaty issues," said Chris Winters, the longest-tenured member of the board. "Maybe the number of bedrooms, definitely the owner-occupied question and stairways, which are surprisingly meaty.
"We can get through those in two meetings."
The question of whether homes with ADUs need to have at least one unit occupied by the property's owner has been a major point of debate for the panel.
At its October meeting, the planners voted 4-1 to not include such a requirement in the proposed bylaw. That move was made in part to move the conversation along and focus on other elements of the bylaw, although it was clear at the time the dissenting member, Alex Carlisle, intended to bring the issue back before a final draft was prepared for Town Meeting.
On Tuesday, Stephanie Boyd, who prepared a spreadsheet to help organize the topics of discussion, tried to steer the conversation away from the owner-occupied piece. But the topic inevitably came up, both during the board's internal discussion and later when Jeschawitz opened the meeting to comments from the floor.
By sidelining the owner-occupation issue as much as possible, the board did identify two other issues.
Exterior stairs have been addressed in the bylaw for decades. Boyd's spreadsheet picked up language from the existing bylaw to the effect that it allows "No unenclosed stairway on street-facing side of building."
Carlisle suggested that that language should be strengthened, to read that no unenclosed stairways be "visible" from the street. He suggested that requiring screening for stairs on, say, the side of a home would be more in keeping with the intent of the bylaw and simpler to understand.
"Our reading of the intent of that [section of the bylaw] ... is it's just to present facade uniformity," said Andrew Groff, the town planner and code enforcer. "We have lots of examples of stairs on the sides of buildings already."
"It's difficult to screen a stairway because it's two stories," Boyd said. "Trees won't screen it. I don't think it's possible to make it not visible from the street."
"Anything is possible," Carlisle responded.
Winters and Susan Puddester sided with Boyd, recommending that the proposed bylaw repeat the language in the existing bylaw.
Carlisle said he feels the ADU bylaw gives the town a chance to revisit the language on exterior stairs.
"We're not leaving the town as is if we're adding a new dwelling type," Carlisle said. "This is a good point to clarify laws that may have been vague in the past."
The board took no vote on the stairway issue on Tuesday, but Carlisle was the only member who expressed an interest in departing from past practice.
He did have at least one ally on another topic: whether the bylaw should restrict the number of bedrooms in an ADU to two or fewer.
Winters argued that the proposed bylaw's current language on the size of an ADU was a sufficient control and if someone could figure out how to put three bedrooms in a unit, so much the better.
"Three bedrooms is a good size, especially for young families," Winters said. "Two bedrooms isn't enough."
In its current draft, a detached accessory dwelling unit would be limited to 900 square feet or 30 percent of the primary (existing) residence's square footage, whichever is larger, with an absolute maximum of 1,200 square feet.
"I'm personally fine with the two-bedroom thing," Boyd said. "It's an accessory building. If you're limiting it to 1,200 square feet, you're not getting many bedrooms anyway."
The board reached no resolution on the bedroom question or any of the three "meaty" issues identified by Winters. But it did decide to add a special meeting to its regular monthly schedule. The Planning Board will meet on Nov. 27 before its previously scheduled Dec. 11 meeting.
Another topic for discussion at one of those meetings may be the parking requirements for ADUs. The board spent relatively little time on that clause of the bylaw. But Lawrence Wright, a member of the town's Zoning Board of Appeals, told the planners that parking is frequently a major issue in questions that come before his panel, and he recommended that a proposed ADU bylaw require that any accessory units face a special permit review where parking plans can be assessed.
Wright, among other members of the public, also pushed on the owner-occupation question.
"In the short-term, when the mother-in-law is [in the ADU], fine," Wright said. "I hope you keep working on what happens in a generation or two.
"There's a different feel when someone builds a house, builds a little house and then rents them both."
Resident Roger Lawrence painted the board a dark picture where "outside investors" could buy up 10 properties in the Village Residence district and add two ADUs to each (one detached, one interior, as would be allowed under the draft bylaw). The outsiders could take 10 current residences and turn them into 30 dwelling units, Lawrence said.
The planners responded by saying that if such a move made economic sense, someone could do something similar tomorrow under the current bylaw by buying 10 housing lots and building 10 duplexes -- which are allowed by right as new construction in the Village Business district.
Winters also painted a competing picture, where developers buy up several contiguous homes in town and build a multifamily housing complex with some residences set aside as Affordable Housing units under the commonwealth's laws. Such a development could ignore the town's zoning regulations on frontage and setbacks under Massachusetts' Chapter 40B law, Winters said.
The board members said
they see the potential ADU bylaw as being a provision of the law that could help the few current homeowners who need to house a sick or aged relative or need to create rental income on their property in order to stay in their home.
While ADUs also could address a perceived need for lower-cost housing in town, the Planning Board members do not expect wide enough adoption of the practice to totally address the town's housing needs.

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Williamstown Fire District Presents Organizational Assessment to Public

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff

New Prudential Committee members Richard Reynolds, left, and David Moresi follow Wednesday's presentation.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A consultant from New Hampshire confirmed Wednesday an argument that Williamstown Fire District officials have been making to voters for more than a decade.
The current fire station on Water Street is too small to accommodate the district's current needs, and the only viable option is to build a new facility, the senior public safety consultant for Municipal Resources Inc., told the Prudential Committee in a public presentation at town hall.
"Modernization modifications really can't be done to that Water Street fire station that will give the community a return on investment," MRI's Shawn Murray said. "It's so old, you'd literally have to tear it down to the foundation and build in some other way. But there's no room for it."
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