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Planning Board members Chris Winters, Amy Jeschawitz, Alex Carlisle and Stephanie Boyd review minutes of a prior meeting.

Williamstown Planning Board Debates 'Owner-Occupied' Component of Bylaw

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board on Tuesday night debated several aspects of the accessory dwelling unit bylaw amendment it hopes to put before voters in May, and toward the end of the nearly three-hour meeting, one thing was clear: The body is no closer to achieving consensus.
After months of discussions at full hearings, on social media and in a series of "community coffees" the board instituted earlier this year, the fundamental disagreement remains over whether to require owner-occupation at homes where a second or third unit is added to a primary residence.
Board member Alex Carlisle and the majority of the residents who spoke from the floor at Tuesday's meeting argued that not having the owner-occupied provision opens the door to absentee landlords who will neglect rental properties and, subsequently, ruin the property values of neighboring residents. They also contend it makes it more likely that "outsiders" will invest in Williamstown homes and place two or three AirBnB rental properties in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
The majority of the board contends that the owner-occupied provision is impossible to enforce as a practical matter and, worse, potentially discriminatory to potential moderate-income residents. At the very least, they argue, the owner-occupied provision would make it far less likely that anyone would take advantage of the ADU option because such a restriction would make the financing of renovations difficult to obtain and resale of homes with additional units problematic.
Two meetings ago, the Planning Board voted 4-1 to strike the owner-occupied provision from the draft it is developing, although Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz has acknowledged that nothing is final until the board presents a warrant article, likely sometime February or March.
"I have been in defense of my position for three or four board meetings, and I'm turning the tide," Carlisle said Tuesday, perhaps referring to the new voices heard in opposition to the board's intention. "I'd like to hear the other side justify its position."
At the end of a meeting where tempers occasionally flared, each of the three other planners in attendance (Susan Puddester was absent) attempted to "justify" their votes to Carlisle.
"By making such a requirement, a restriction of rights, you are reducing the likelihood of this being used," Winters said, taking the first crack at it. "Secondly, you are reducing the number of potential rental units. I know you think that's a feature and not a bug. But I cannot find a reason that I should object to the choice of living situation someone makes -- rental versus ownership -- in order not to invite them into my community. I feel strongly about that, and I will defend that."
Stephanie Boyd focused on practical implications.
"There are other reasons, like enforcement," Boyd said. "It's next to impossible.
"Sometimes, it can be difficult to get financing … because [ADUs] are not always viewed as adding value to a property, and when you add an owner-occupied restriction, it reduces the value. That leads to the reasons Chris is saying that fewer people will do these."
Jeschawitz said she agreed with the points raised by Winters and Boyd and recast the argument based on principle.
"If you meet the setbacks, etc., you should be able to do what you want with your property instead of being told you have to live there," Jeschawitz said. "You start [requiring owner-occupancy] with this bylaw, and where does it end?"
Carlisle retorted that property owners deal with regulations all the time.
"Most of the rules and regulations are not meant to benefit the individual," he said. "They're meant to benefit the community. It's a balance. That's the idea of providing a certain number of rules and regulations so you don't give one individual the ability to upset his neighbor."
Carlisle cited another project of the Planning Board that he knows Winters supports: updating the town's lighting bylaw, in part to prevent spillover lighting from one property to the next.
Winters seized on the analogy, touching off one of the most pointed back-and-forths the board has seen throughout this process.
"I know what the negative externalities are of too much light," Winters said. "Can you put out the negative externalities of a non-owner occupied ADU? Explain the negative externalities of a renter next door."
"If you have an investor property … you have the opportunity for a single-family home being divided into two units under our current bylaw [proposal] and a third detached unit," Carlisle said. "That creates parking issues."
"So we can regulate parking and setbacks," Winters interrupted. "Get to the renter part."
"I'm not against renters," Carlisle said. "That's not the issue. The issue is allowing someone who an investor to build an ADU. Our goal is not to give the opportunity for investors to take underutilized housing and use it for short-term rentals.
"It's not that I'm protecting Williamstown from adding more rental units. I think they're necessary. I think this is an opportunity to add incremental opportunities without taking a step too far and incurring a ripple effect of unintended consequences."
Winters later pointed out that there's nothing in the town's bylaws that prevents someone from renting out their whole house or from building a duplex and renting both sides.
"If this is an issue, why isn't it an issue now for non-owner occupied duplexes?" Winters asked. "Should we legislate them away? There's no principle there."
And just before the meeting adjourned, the two engaged one more time, on the question of whether an owner-occupied provision would nullify any potential bylaw by making it impossible to use.
"It limits the market for that property," Winters said of a home that has added a secondary unit tied to a requirement for owner occupation. "It can only be sold to someone who plans to live there."
"It's not a problem because they don't have to use it as an ADU," Carlisle replied.
"So I'm just buying a house with a shed that has a nice kitchen?" Winters asked incredulously.
When Carlisle answered that question affirmatively, a clearly exasperated Winters gave up on the discussion.
The Planning Board's next full meeting is Dec. 11. The next "community coffee," where two members of the five-person panel are available to informally engage residents outside the strictures of an open meeting, is scheduled for Dec. 5 from 4 to 5 p.m. at the Log on Spring Street.
More to come from this meeting.

Tags: bylaws,   housing,   Planning Board,   rental units,   short-term rentals,   

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Mount Greylock Senior Announced As Semi-finalist In National Merit Scholarship Corporation

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