WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Several of the residents who attended Tuesday's Planning Board meeting have, for months, been following the board's discussion about a possible bylaw amendment to open up opportunities for accessory dwelling units or ADUs.
But some were much newer to the conversation, including one who asked why the board is looking at changing the bylaw in the first place.
"I don't understand why we want to turn it into a split-level town," Andrew Munzer told the board. "It's the wrong direction. I think we should stick with what's made this town great for hundreds of years and not deviate in a way that's going to split up all these houses."
The Planning Board members responded, in part, by noting that the ADU concept is not new in Williamstown. In fact, town meeting passed an accessory dwelling unit bylaw in 2012. One problem is that the bylaw was so limited in scope and restrictive that it has seldom been used; just four ADUs have been permitted since the 2012 vote.
Another problem is that while new two-family housing is permitted by right in the town, conversions of single-family homes are not allowed at all, a fundamental fairness issue that frequently has led planners to note at meetings that if the town does nothing, someone can buy an existing home, tear it down and build a new duplex on the same lot. The board has discussed the possibility, should the current ADU bylaw draft not be successful, of simply amending the current bylaw regarding duplexes to strike the word "new."
But the draft bylaw under discussion goes further, allowing both conversion of single-family homes and construction of detached ADUs, something struck from the 2012 bylaw, which allows only conversion of existing structures that have been in place for 10 years and which meet setback requirements.
What it wouldn't do, planners argue, is fundamentally change the nature of the town.
"Are we trying to change the face of the town by shoving additional housing in? No," Planning Board member Alex Carlisle said in direct response to Munzer's comment from the floor. "The idea is this is minimal change to the town while adding housing in a niche."
Chris Winters, the longest-tenured member of the board who joined in 2006, said increasing housing choices in town has been a point of discussion for the body for at least that long. That discussion led, among other things, to a 2013 housing needs assessment commissioned by the Affordable Housing Committee and a 2017 Planning Board study of housing issues backed by a grant from the Massachusetts Housing Partnership.
Winters argued that while fears of unintended consequences from the proposed bylaw are overstated, the consequences of the town's simultaneously aging and declining population are real.
"Rather than talking about lot line-to-lot line construction, we should be remembering that we're losing population," Winters said. "The worst thing that could happen to this town and our property values is if the school district self-destructs because there aren't enough kids to have an excellent school. That's what I'm worrying about. That's the end of Williamstown as I know it when people don't want to move here because the education system is not seen as excellent.
"We're losing population because young families can't move here. Are there issues with jobs and economic development? Sure. But we can't address that. All [the Planning Board] can do is address the zoning issues."
The board members believe that much of Williamstown's existing housing stock is underutilized, and allowing more ADUs would, for example, let older residents to age in place and bring in rental income from a portion of the property.
"It addresses the issue of the fact we have a town that's fundamentally built out," Planning Board member Stephanie Boyd said. "So how do you add more housing units to a town where all the lots, for the most part, have houses on them?"
For the most part, the residents who spoke from the floor of Tuesday's meeting expressed support for the principle of allowing ADUs, though some insisted that owner occupation needs to be a requirement for additional units on a property.
Roger Lawrence, a frequent participant at meetings of the Planning Board and other town bodies, told the planners that instead of crafting Williamstown's own ADU bylaw, it should simply have an up-and-down vote on a model bylaw drafted by the commonwealth to give communities options to consider. Specifically, Lawrence said the Planning Board should put forth a bylaw amendment that keeps the owner-occupied language included in the model bylaw.
"It's pretty clear to me having read [the model bylaw] that owner-occupancy is one of the central tenets of the document," Lawrence said.
Other residents who approached the podium were either opposed or agnostic on the question of owner-occupation.
Paul Harsch, who raised other concerns about the proposed bylaw in general, asked how the town could legally evict renters in the ADU if a property changes hands and the new owner does not plan to be an owner-occupant. Ann Hogeland echoed that sentiment but recommended that any ADUs be allowed only with the approval of the Zoning Board of Appeals.
"I think that would alleviate some of the concerns we're hearing about parking because the ZBA would do a careful review," Hogeland said.
She also suggested that instead of allowing up to three dwelling units on a property -- two in a subdivided existing home plus a detached ADU -- the Planning Board scale back the proposed bylaw to allow only either an internal ADU or an attached ADU at a residence.
"Perhaps we should move slowly," Hogeland said.
Hugh Guilderson said the town needs to move to promote more moderate-income housing or it will run the risk of going the way of the Cape Cod town he left to move to Williamstown.
"[Williamstown faces a] future with no school teachers, no EMTs, no nurses, no plumbers … because moderately priced housing simply was disappearing," Guilderson said.
One resident, Kevin Kennefick, used Tuesday's meeting to ask the board whether the ADU bylaw its drafting would be applied equally across the town's residential districts. It would. Unlike the redistricting that was part of a more ambitious bylaw revision to which Kennefick strenuously objected and which the Planning Board ultimately pulled earlier this year, the current bylaw would apply to all of the town's residential zones.
In light of last year's decision to pull bylaw amendments intended to increase flexibility and options for property owners, the Planning Board on Tuesday discussed whether any bylaw proposed this year should be one that the panel is reasonably certain will receive the two-thirds majority vote needed at town meeting.
"There's a balance between what I think we should do and what you guys think and what could be passed at town meeting," Boyd said, referring to the audience at Tuesday's meeting. "We want to make it easy and less expensive to encourage housing types that aren't too expensive … I'm thinking maybe we should leave it the way it is and work on something else."
Carlisle, the lone member of the five-person Planning Board to argue in favor of owner-occupation, said he would hate to see the board spend a year working on a bylaw amendment that fails in May.
At another point, Boyd, who has been siding with the majority against owner-occupation, asked whether an ADU bylaw that had that requirement might be better than nothing.
In the end, though, Boyd suggested the one action step the Planning Board agreed to Tuesday to move the current draft bylaw forward: the creation of an information sheet to explain the issue to voters who have not been as engaged in the process.
"Proposals can fail because people haven't had time to understand them," Boyd said. "A marketing plan, essentially, would be helpful."
Planning Board Chair Amy Jeschawitz tasked Boyd with drafting an information sheet that would include background on the reasoning behind the bylaw, examples of how it could be applied and arguments for and against its most controversial aspect, owner occupation. Jeschawitz also hopes to include guidance she is seeking from the town counsel about issues that may arise from enforcement of an owner-occupation provision.
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