Birch, Jeschawitz Vying for Williamstown Planning Board
Newcomer Dante Birch, who is vying for a five-year seat on the Planning Board, used a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters to explain why he believes one of the current board's zoning proposals is flawed and ought to be amended on the floor of town meeting.
Birch is challenging incumbent and current board chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz, who is in a 3-1 majority of planners who recommended Article 33, a change to the town's bylaw on detached accessory dwelling units, to May 21 meeting.
"What the Planning Board is proposing … is the introduction of a new architectural form, something that is unavailable presently," Birch said. "It's something that I think is a very big change to the community. And it's a great idea. ADUs are a great opportunity available to us today.
"However, I have a significant issue with the permitting process."
Birch previously has talked publicly about his plan to introduce an amendment to Article 33 that would require all detached ADUs to receive a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals, and at last Tuesday's forum, he talked about the reason why.
Basically, he argued it comes down to fairness.
"If you have a nonconforming lot and want to introduce this structure … it has to go to the ZBA for a special permit [under the bylaw amendment as written]," Birch said. "However if you have a lot that is slightly larger, you don't and can put [an ADU] within the setbacks wherever you want.
"I think everyone should be able to do it by special permit. … When I look at the special permit process and the responsibilities of the ZBA, I see a lot of what I believe the town values."
Jeschawitz did not specifically argue against the amendment Birch has talked about bringing to the meeting, but she noted that the Planning Board has been discussing the ADU bylaw for at least two years.
"We had this incorporated into part of the proposal we were looking to do last year, and last year [a more sweeping bylaw change] was rejected," Jeschawitz said. "This year, it gets to move forward."
The Planning Board, in the face of heavy criticism in the winter and spring of 2018, pulled its proposals on the housing bylaw from the town meeting warrant well before the meeting.
"[The ADU piece] was separated out this year," Jeschawitz said. "One thing we asked last year was what is the smallest thing we can do to move this forward, and this was one of them."
Alex Carlisle, who was elected to the Planning Board in 2018 and who voted against Article 33 at the board level, used an opportunity to ask questions at last week's forum to make an argument against the bylaw proposal.
"One difference is if you're applying to the ZBA, you have to let your neighbors know — or the town does," Carlisle said, referring to special permit process. Under the "by-right" development for conforming properties as the amendment is drafted, "One day, you can look into your neighbor's lot and say, 'Oh, my, they have a new house in the back yard.' "
The ADU bylaw change is part of a broader strategy the Planning Board has attempted to expand housing options. The board's hope is that by allowing new types of housing, the town could become more accessible to potential residents with varying incomes.
At Tuesday's forum, Birch and Jeschawitz disagreed on whether housing should be a priority for the board.
"I believe housing and economics go hand in hand," Jeschawitz said. "A lot of our businesses, especially in the service industry, they struggle to find help. There are help wanted signs everywhere.
"A lot of that is the fact that most of our service folks who work in our community don't live here. They have to come from other areas like North Adams or some folks come from Pittsfield. But how long are you going to drive from Pittsfield to Williamstown to work in a restaurant? Probably until you can find something better in the town where you live.
"Until we can have workforce housing, we're going to struggle with that."
Birch appeared to question whether Williamstown has a housing shortage, drawing a distinction between the town of 7,700 and metropolitan areas like Boston that are experiencing a major housing crunch.
"It's not the housing that's driving [Boston's] crisis, it's the jobs and people wanting to be there," Birch said. "When you look at our housing crisis and creating more affordable housing, you need to address the issue of jobs and finding more opportunities for people to afford the housing that we have."
Birch also said the town needs to find ways to "reutilize our existing buildings with duplexes. That's a better solution than new construction."
Asked about their personal plans for the board if elected, each talked about changes that could improve the business climate in town.
"There's a lot we can do on Route 2, the corridor between Williamstown and North Adams is an opportunity," Birch said. "Creating some walkability on Route 2, maybe changing the setbacks for commercial properties. There's a lot of work being done in North Adams, and if we could extend that corridor, that would be a wonderful thing."
Jeschawitz mentioned another part of town ripe for development.
"One thing we continually talk about … is looking more closely at the Village Business District and incorporating Water Street into that area," she said. "I think we're in a good position now, especially since the new hotel will be open later this year. There's an anchor there now. Cable Mills is now open."
She also said the town needs to think about crafting a new Master Plan to replace the 2002 document.
"Maybe it wouldn't be as big and broad as the last one was," she said. "I wasn't here when it happened, but I know it was a big process. I think we should wait until the  Census comes in."
Jeschawitz referenced the 2002 Master Plan in her opening statement.
Birch used his opening statement to take the current board to task for not doing enough to listen to the community.
"I've been very engaged with the Planning Board over the last year and a half," he said. "I've been part of a group that pushed the Planning Board to engage the public, which they have begun to do, to their credit, but there is work to be done.
"What lies behind my amendment [to Article 33] is a concern that everyone has an opportunity to be heard about important changes to their neighborhood that affect them directly. I believe a Planning Board position is a service position,. I believe it's my job — if elected — to represent all of you."
Jeschawitz said she has enjoyed the last five years doing that service and hopes the voters will give her five more.
"I treat what I do on the Planning Board as a job — seven days a week, 365 days a year," she said. "I'm passionate about what I do on the Planning Board. It may not always be the popular thing with everyone, but I am passionate about taking this community forward into the future.
"I'm a positive person. I look at the glass as half full. There is, with the way I think, a positive influence, and I think that's something good for Williamstown."
Polls will be open at Williamstown Elementary School on Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Tags: election 2019, town elections,
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