WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Tuesday's annual town meeting could finally put the rest a debate that has been simmering in town politics for two years.
Articles 32 and 33 on the meeting warrant are amendments to the town's zoning bylaws that would free up more residents to add dwelling units to their residential properties.
They are the product of months of discussion by the Planning Board, and they were the focus of last week's town election that saw the chair of that board voted out of office by one of the chief critics of Article 33.
The articles also have their roots in a contentious discussion that preceded last year's town meeting; in 2018, the Planning Board ultimately voted to pull its own, more expansive, zoning bylaw amendment off the warrant before it got to voters at the April meeting.
This year, one of the pared-down proposals still has its share of detractors.
The first article, No. 32, has relatively wide support.
The amendment "Regulating Two Family Homes," is fairly simple. It strikes the word "new" from the existing bylaw on two-family homes on the theory that it is illogical to allow new duplexes but treat conversions of existing single-family homes to two-family homes as a separate use.
Article 32 also changes two-family homes from a use requiring a special permit to a "by right" development in three zoning districts: Rural Residence 2, Rural Residence 3 and the Southern Gateway District.
Article 32 has the unanimous backing of the Planning Board.
Article 33 is where the real controversy lies.
The amendment to the bylaw on "Detached Accessory Dwelling Units" seeks to allow development of more ADUs by homeowners.
ADUs are limited in size to 900 square feet or up to one-third of the principle dwelling unit but may not exceed 1,200 square feet. In other words, if you have a 6,000 square foot house, you can't build a 2,000 square foot ADU; you're still limited to 1,200 square feet for the second structure.
As drafted, the bylaw will allow new ADUs on any property that meets the setback, frontage and acreage requirements for its district — i.e., a conforming lot.
Proponents of the bylaw have argued on philosophical grounds — that it is reasonable to allow small-scale development on private land — and that allowing such ADUs will encourage more affordably-priced housing in town and, thus, make Williamstown more accessible to people from a wider range of socio-economic groups.
Opponents tried to get the planners to include more restrictive language in the ADU amendment throughout the process.
One of the main points of contention was the board's decision not to require owner occupation of at least one dwelling unit on a parcel where an ADU is erected. Planning Board member Alex Carlisle argued frequently and passionately that without the "owner occupied" provision, the amendment as proposed would be exploited by absentee landlords who will change the character of existing residential neighborhoods.
Critics also tried to get the board to limit the bylaw so that an individual homeowner could have either an ADU or a two-family principal dwelling unit but not both.
Instead, the Planning Board's proposal would allow up to three dwelling units on a single residential lot: two in the main house plus an ADU.
But in response to public comments, the board added a restriction to the proposal as drafted. Anyone who converts a single-family home to a two-family home must wait five years before applying for building permit for an ADU, and anyone who builds an ADU must wait five years before converting the main residence to a duplex.
At least one amendment to the amendment can be expected from the floor of town meeting when Article 33 is discussed.
Dante Birch, who last week defeated Planning Board Chair Amy Jeschawitz in the town election, has announced his intention to offer an amendment that will substantially alter the board's proposal.
As drafted, the amendment will make ADUs a "by right" development for conforming lots in most zoning districts. Birch plans an amendment that would require a special permit — and thus review by the Zoning Board of Appeals — for any new detached accessory dwelling units in town.
Article 33 passed the Planning Board on a 3-1 vote with Carlisle voting against.
While the zoning bylaw amendments could take a little time at town meeting, one change at this year's meeting could add a little efficiency.
Town officials plan to bundle several town meeting articles into groups on a "consent agenda" that will allow voters to pass numerous, routine articles with one vote rather than take separate votes on each.
The first set will include all the town and school budgetary items. The second set will be all of the Community Preservation Act allocations previously reviewed and recommended by the Community Preservation Committee.
At last week's Select Board meeting, Town Manager Jason Hoch explained that the process for using a consent agenda at the meeting will allow for any member of the town to place a "hold" on any article on which he or she would like more discussion — essentially pulling said article out of the bundle.
"I've spoken to the moderator, and he plans to go through the process a little more deliberatively," Hoch said. "We want to give people a chance to reflect, and, if they have a comment, be comfortable putting a hold on it."
And you don't even need to have a comment in order to request a hold.
"If you're in the audience and want us to talk about an article a little more, you can ask for a hold," Hoch said. "If you call out, 'Hold,' that doesn't bind you to asking a more specific question [about the article].
"You don't have to have a reason [for the hold]."
The annual town meeting is at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at Williamstown Elementary School.
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