A map shows the extent of nonconformity for residential lots in town. All properties in various shades of red do not meet the zoning bylaw's requirement for minimum road frontage. Most were grandfathered.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — For six months, the Planning Board has been talking about making incremental changes to the zoning bylaw to increase housing options in the town.
And even after all this time, some of the board members themselves are struck by just how minor those changes are.
Last week, Stephanie Boyd showed her colleagues a PowerPoint presentation she is preparing in advance of a planned January public information session on the bylaw amendments the board hopes to send to May's annual town meeting
"Thank you for turning our bylaw back into English," joked Chris Winters. "It's great to have that as a thought exercise — especially to play out the differences between what we have and what we're proposing. It's just a few marginal differences."
"That surprised me," Boyd said.
The proposed bylaw, in a couple of different ways, would open up options for accessory dwelling units or ADUs in the town. But as Boyd noted at the outset of her presentation last Tuesday, ADUs are already allowed in the town; the rules are just thought to be so constraining that residents have not taken advantage of the option.
For example, town meeting in 2012 passed a bylaw that allows conversion of an existing structure — barn, garage, carriage house — on a residential property, but said the existing structure has to conform to the zoning setbacks, something that hundreds of homes that predate zoning don't do now.
Likewise, residents can now add a secondary unit internal in their existing single-family home, but the secondary unit is restricted to 900 square feet.
The Planning Board currently is proposing to address the second issue by eliminating the square footage limit on an internal conversion. If passed, the proposed bylaw would allow a homeowner to divide his or her home however he or she saw fit.
"We thought if it's permissible to do a [new] duplex, you should be able to do that in an existing house," Boyd said.
The detached ADU bylaw requires more of an overhaul.
"Currently, we're proposing that we would allow ADUs in existing accessory buildings on non-conforming lots … only with the approval of the Zoning Board of Appeals," Boyd said. "[The proposed bylaw] would allow construction of new detached ADUs. This is probably the biggest change.
"New ADUs would have to meet side and front yard requirements. The could potentially build on nonconforming lots with ZBA approval."
Members of the board have consistently said they do not expect the incremental changes they propose to result in a dramatic increase in the number of ADUs. They do hope to provide more choice for property owners and "[e]ncourage greater diversity in population with particular attention to young adults and senior citizens while being more affordable to a wider range of households," according to explanatory language in the current bylaw draft.
"The main changes are that we're being a little more flexible," Boyd said of the proposals on the table. "We're allowing new ADUs and bigger ADUs within the house and allowing [detached ADUs] on nonconforming lots with ZBA approval."
Boyd's presentation is intended to summarize the issue for residents who would attend the session the board tentatively planned for Jan. 23. It includes a summary of some of the concerns the Planning Board already has heard regarding the proposed bylaw changes: parking, congestion on roads, the potential loss of town character, an increased density in already densely developed neighborhoods, absentee landlords and the potential for ADUs being built to use as Airbnb rentals.
The planners currently are keeping the proposed bylaw consistent with the existing bylaw with regard to parking: one parking space per dwelling unit and sufficient off-street parking for any visitors.
Boyd included in her presentation an analysis of the current situation for residential lots that are more densely built than the bylaw would allow and showed that, typically, a detached ADU would not be an option even under the more relaxed code the board is suggesting.
Winters suggested that the town's character is actually preserved by allowing more ADUs, which harken back to the town's agricultural roots, when aging family members stayed in the family home and an addition was built to accommodate them.
That last point left an opening for Alex Carlisle, the one board member who has been a consistent and strong voice in favor of requiring any new ADU law to require one dwelling unit on each lot to be owner-occupied, thus eliminating the potential for absentee landlords.
"I don't think the situation now is the situation we had 100 years ago because now we have this very large investor class, which remains my concern here," said Carlisle, who said he had been holding back on expressing his reservations at this meeting. "What concerns me and has always concerned me about this process is one of the things we're trying to do is create more affordable housing with a small 'a.' Once you offer opportunities for the investor class to come in and create housing … Maybe I'm wrong but if I was an investor who wanted to buy a place off Southworth Street and wanted a return on my investment, I'd want to charge higher [rental] rates.
"I'm not against renters. I'll say that again. But every time you take a single-family residence … and turn it into apartments … you're taking homes essentially off the single-family market. It's one step forward, two steps back to me."
Likewise, an increase in the number of Airbnb rentals would take housing stock off the market, creating the exact opposite of the result the Planning Board seeks to achieve, Carlisle said.
"There's nothing wrong with investors," he said. "We need them in town. But this is the case where the opportunity will create a ripple effect throughout town."
The Planning Board did not choose to revisit the owner-occupation question, which it decided for the time being in a 4-1 vote this fall. In general, the majority of the board has said that requiring owner-occupancy would be extremely difficult to enforce and it would deter homeowners from making the investment necessary to add an ADU.
But the bylaw amendment is still a work in progress, and the final version won't go on the town meeting warrant until the spring, after it has been vetted in a formal public hearing that will be held some time after the planned Jan. 23 information session.
For now, the board continues to stress the need for residents to provide feedback, pro and con, about the proposed bylaw, which is available for view on the town's website. And Winters and Planning Board Chair Amy Jeschawitz will hold the last of the panel's informal listening sessions of 2018 on Saturday morning at Dunkin Donuts at 8 a.m.
In other business on Tuesday, the board approved four requests to redraw lot lines on residential properties. It OK'd the combination of three lots into one on Gale Road, two lots into one on Oblong Road, and it accepted a revised plan to divide a lot on Henderson Road.
The Planning Board also found that approval was not required [the legal term of art for its consent] to divide the town-owned lot at the corner of Cole Avenue and Maple Street into two housing lots where Habitat for Humanity hopes to build homes starting this spring.
Community Development Director Andrew Groff also showed the board data that the town has compiled through an outside consultant that shows the extent of non-conformity in residential lots. Groff showed and explained three maps that demonstrate where homes don't meet the zoning bylaw requirements for setback, frontage or lot size.
Earlier this year, the board considered sending town meeting bylaw proposals that would have changed those requirements in some parts of town — in part by subdividing the General Residence district and redefining the frontage, setback and lot size requirements to align with conditions on the ground. One of the outcomes of that aborted effort to amend the bylaw was a desire for more data on the nonconformity issue.
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Any area educational facility would be able to buy a house, split it into a duplex, and then rent each half to two or more students, and as a result, it would be removed from Williamstown's property tax roles, as an educational usage. Has this been the goal all along?
Keep the owner occupancy restriction in the proposal!
While many of Williams' properties are tax-exempt due to its nonprofit educational status, buildings that Williams owns and uses for rental housing are taxed. You can look it up for yourself on the town website's tax roll.
Stetson Court: #51, #57 and #80 (Carlton, Leigh and Gavitt houses): are all taxed at market value
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