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Planning Board member Stephanie Boyd addresses Wednesday's public forum.

Old Issues Raised Anew at Williamstown Planning Board Forum

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Of the 30 or so attendees at a Wednesday public forum on proposed zoning bylaw amendments, most were well acquainted with the issue the Planning Board hopes to bring to town meeting in May.
And most of the public comments in the more than two-hour session at Williamstown Elementary School concerned issues with which the board has been grappling for months.
Parties on both sides of a key issue acknowledged that not much was new in the debate.
"We've not had many people comment on this," Planning Board Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz said at one point. "We've had the same handful who keep coming to our meetings to complain about it. That tells me that not too many people are upset about it."
On the other hand, one of the critics of the current draft framed the divide another way.
"I've heard no opposition to the idea of [accessory dwelling units]," resident Roger Lawrence said from the floor of the discussion. "We've had a board that supports less restrictive [land] use and a roomful of people who support more restrictive use. That hasn't changed."
The Planning Board organized the Wednesday evening special meeting in order to inform the public about the proposals it is drafting and solicit input.
At issue are two draft bylaws. One would make it easier for homeowners to effectively turn a single-family home into a duplex. The other would relax the rules for detached accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.
One major sticking point is whether the town will require owners of properties with new ADUs to live in one of the dwelling units on the parcel. The Planning Board last year voted 4-1 to leave the "owner-occupied" requirement out of the draft bylaw.
The entire "roomful" of two or three dozen in the school cafeteria was not against the idea of keeping it out.
"[An owner-occupied requirement] gets municipal government into people's business in a way that would be uncomfortable," said Jeffrey Thomas, one of three members of the Select Board to attend Wednesday's forum and address the group, as individuals, from the floor.
Chris Kluchman of the Massachusetts Housing Choice Program was asked point-blank by a resident whether the commonwealth encourages requiring owner occupation for ADUs.
"What the state says is it's up to the local bylaw," Kluchman said. "The state does promote ADUs, and it wants to promote them as a by-right development.
"Personally, I think that adding a provision for owner occupation would be out of character with the rest of Williamstown's bylaw … because it's a barrier to what you might do with your housing.
"It is extremely difficult to regulate owner occupancy. The only time it would come up would be when you have neighbor complaints."
The difficulty of enforcement is frequently cited as one reason not to require owner-occupancy.
"The town is not going to go knocking on doors asking who lives there," Planning Board member Stephanie Boyd said.
Alex Carlisle, the only member of the Planning Board to vote in favor of requiring owner-occupation, again made the case for it on Wednesday night, saying at one point that enforcement would be routine, as homeowners routinely list a primary residence on tax forms. He did not specify how the town would be able to cross-reference data filed with state and federal income tax authorities; Town Hall confirmed Thursday morning that the municipality does not see that information.
Toward the end of the forum, Carlisle and Lawrence each engaged with Planning Board member Chris Winters in a familiar debate about the principle of requiring owner occupancy for an ADU.
"Traditional ADUs have been owner-occupied," Carlisle said. "The advantage of owner-occupied is it does limit the potential for development. My concern is once you open it up to three units [on a property] and eliminate the owner-occupied requirement, that makes it attractive to developers."
"We need to not allow ourselves to be scared of the word 'developer,' " Winters countered. "If someone develops land to its maximum extent and doesn't live there, that's three more families who have the opportunity to move to Williamstown who couldn't before."
Lawrence responded that the concerns of critics are justified and that "absentee landlords" will alter the character of neighborhoods currently dominated by owner-occupants.
"Recognize that our fears are valid," he told the board. "I worry about the loss of neighborhoods where people have pride of ownership. Owner-occupiers are going away, and that's the lifeblood of the town."
Winters said he found the argument that renters are less desirable than owner-occupants to be "offensive."
"You completely misconstrue what I said," Lawrence replied. "I was speaking about the property owner, not the tenant."
Winters argued that even "absentee landlords" have an incentive to maintain rental properties.
"All of us have probably rented a car at some point," Winters said. "Have you ever taken your rental car to a car wash? Of course not. But have you ever gotten into a rental car that needed to go to the car wash? No. Because that car is owned by someone, and it's in their interest to keep it in good condition so they can maximize its value."
Lawrence said Winters' analogy misses the point.
"If your rental car analogy was valid, no one would ever live in a home they don't like," Lawrence said. "Lots of people live in homes they don't like because it's all they can afford, and the owner is an absentee landlord who is trying to maximize their profit."
Owner occupation was not the only sticking point in the conversation about the ADU amendments.
Lawrence Wright, a recently departed member of the town's Zoning Board of Appeals, told the Planning Board, not for the first time, that accessory dwelling units should not be allowed on a "by right" basis on any property in town. Currently, the board's draft bylaw would allow by-right development on conforming residential parcels and require a special permit from the ZBA for parcels that don't conform with setback and frontage requirements.
Wright focused on two points made by Boyd in a presentation about the draft bylaw: Nearly half the town's residential parcels are non-conforming and, thus, would require ZBA approval;  the ZBA would consider issues like parking and how to mitigate impact to the neighborhood with buffers and screening. And even if the town passes the ADU amendment, Williamstown likely would see only a handful of accessory units — if that — in any given year.
"If I'm the guy whose neighbor puts up a two-story house in the yard, I'm not too concerned that there won't be many of them in town," Wright said. "All of these ADUs should require a special permit, period. I'm not impressed that 48 percent would go to the ZBA. One hundred percent should go to the ZBA."
Resident Anne Hogeland focused on another issue: the maximum allowable units on a parcel.
Even under the town's current zoning, a homeowner with a large enough home on a conforming lot with an existing accessory building (barn, carriage house, etc.) that also meets setback requirements can have as many as three dwelling units on his or her property. By relaxing the regulations and allowing for construction of new ADUs, the draft bylaw — if passed by a two-thirds vote at town meeting — would theoretically open the door to more three-unit parcels.
Hogeland advised the board to consider writing the bylaw amendment to restrict new development to just one ADU per property. She argued that such a restriction would make the proposals more likely to clear the two-thirds "super majority" hurdle.
"It would be a shame at the end of the day to come out with something that didn't have broad support," Hogeland said. " 'Walking not running' would be a bylaw that allows either a duplex or a detached ADU on a property but not both and that allows ADUs only by ZBA approval. With those two tweaks, this could have widespread support."
Lawrence also said the Planning Board should modify its draft bylaw amendments in order to win more support.
"It's time for everyone to give a little bit of ground," he said. "One way would be to say, three units are allowed if one is owner-occupied or two units without owner occupation. I haven't said this before.
"Please, meet us in the middle."
Jeschawitz wrapped up the forum by noting that the Planning Board's next regular monthly meeting is Feb. 8 12, and she hopes the panel will be able to soon finalize warrant articles that it can send to the Select Board and begin the process for inclusion on the annual town meeting warrant — a process that includes at least one more public hearing prior to the May meeting.
Boyd told the crowd that the monthly "roomful" of critics is not the board's only source of feedback.
"All of us talk to people on the street," Boyd said. "You're not the only voices we hear."

Tags: community forum,   housing,   zoning,   

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Williamstown DIRE Committee Member Running for Select Board

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A member of the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee has announced his intention to run for an open three-year seat on the Select Board this May.
Jeffrey Johnson on Friday issued a news release saying that he hopes to "make a difference in the quality of town governance and in the fabric of the lives of his neighbors."
Johnson, 47, grew up in Williamstown, attending both the local elementary school and Mount Greylock Regional School, and currently works for the commonwealth's Department of Developmental Services in its Pittsfield/North Adams office.
"I love and appreciate this town and, to me, that means I have an obligation to serve to the best of my abilities," Johnson said in the release.
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