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Alexander Carlisle and Peter Beck are vying for a five-year seat on the Planning Board.

Beck, Carlisle Contend for Williamstown Planning Board Spot

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — It is a local election season like none we have seen before, and the town's two candidates in the only contested election on the ballot are missing out on opportunities to see the voters and make their case.
"This is pretty low on the pecking order of problems during the pandemic, but I wish I could be out there meeting people in the town," Planning Board candidate Peter Beck said. "It's hard not being at the dump, not being on Spring Street, not being out there meeting people as they go about their days.
"I think of town planning as a collaboration between the Planning Board and the town."
Beck is challenging incumbent Alexander Carlisle for a five-year seat on the five-member board. 
Election day is Tuesday, June 23, rescheduled from its usual mid-May date as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also in a nod to the pandemic, the town is strongly urging residents to apply for mail-in ballots that can be returned before election day in order to cut down on the crowds that Tuesday and protect poll workers.
The town's chapter of the League of Women Voters will hold a virtual candidates forum for Beck and Carlisle on Wednesday, May 13.
Carlisle was elected in May 2018 to fill the last two years of an unexpired term. In that time, the self-employed art conservationist has earned a reputation for going his own way and taking principled stands that sometimes leave him in a minority of one on the board.
"I think I add a bit of diversity to the board that isn't necessarily there," Carlisle said. "I'm not afraid to voice my opinion, speak my mind and take a contrarian point of view if I feel it's the right one for the town.
"I don't have any kind of personal agenda. The right thing is a moving target. It all depends on the issue before the board."
Although not professing an agenda, per se, Carlisle does have a priority item for the coming year on the board.
"I'd like to see the lighting bylaw proposal advance," he said. "I completed the work of Ann McCallum, who started it four years ago. I presented my version in May. I'd like to see it reviewed in the coming year. It probably wouldn't come before the town for a vote until town meeting next year.
"The board has spent a few years wrestling with different issues. This was a year when we wanted to get a few more minor issues set. I accepted that [the lighting bylaw] was going to be sidelined because it was going to be a more difficult issue. Once we started reviewing it, I think it wasn't as difficult as other people thought it would be."
Building on the work of McCallum, Carlisle drafted a bylaw that seeks to reduce light pollution while maintaining public safety.
While tabling that idea, the current Planning Board has advanced three zoning bylaw amendments to the annual town meeting -- currently on a date to be announced.
Both Carlisle and Beck talked about the tendency of Planning Boards to be dominated by the issue of the moment rather than looking at the kind of long-term planning concerns each wants to see get full attention.
"Some years there are issues, single issues that become the focus of conversation," Beck said. "To run for Planning Board then means to have a strong opinion on that issue. That's really important when that happens, but I think those kinds of years can take the oxygen out of the room for bigger issues.
"I'm grateful this year is less one of those years when a single issue dominates the conversation. It allows us to have conversations about what planning means and what it can mean."
Beck has thought a lot about the role of the Planning Board. The associate director of the Buxton School is a history teacher who emphasizes civics with his students. He also earned a degree from Yale Law School, where he worked on housing issues and community development with legal aid societies in New Haven, Conn., and Burlington, Vt.
"I've seen from multiple angles how planning and housing affordability affects local communities," Beck said.
This is actually his second stint in Williamstown. In 2016, he and his wife, also a teacher, left town to pursue graduate school. They returned at the start of the current school year to raise their two children, ages 1 and 3.
"When I moved to town, I read the Planning Board minutes and went through the [Geographic Information System] maps," Beck said. "I don't know how many people move to town who are not developers and, for fun, read through the zoning ordinance."
He also has read through the town's Master Plan, drafted in 2002 and due for an update. The Master Plan is the work of the Planning Board, but more than likely the next iteration won't be drafted just by the five members of the board; the ‘02 document was the work of a 20-member Master Plan Steering Committee.
Beck said the next Master Plan is an opportunity to do the kind of long-range planning that he hopes to accomplish as a member of the board.
"The opportunity the Master Plan gives you is to have a really important conversation without feeling that the stakes are so high," Beck said. "You can put aside the shortest term interest and have an eyes-open conversation about what you want the town to look like in 10 years or 20 years.
"It's harder to have a conversation about what you want to happen six months from now. It's easier to have that conversation about something we all care about: What's best for Williamstown 10 years from now, 20 years from now."
Carlisle had his own take on forward-thinking planning when he proposed last year that the town hold an architectural planning competition, inviting architects to help the town "to envision new ideas and possibilities for housing, offices, storefronts, parking, walking paths, etc."
The idea failed to gain support from either the Planning Board or Select Board, and Carlisle said he likely won't be the one to revive it. But he still thinks it has merits.
"It was a unique idea, but it was not well received," he said. "It was very much outside the box, but all the effort that has been made over the last 10 years to create housing inside the box hasn't worked."
His intention was to gather broad concepts that could work in Williamstown's downtown while maintaining the character of a small New England town. The goal was to find the kinds of ideas that would make downtown living more desirable to both young professionals and older residents
"There are hundreds of small communities around the country that are trying to solve the very same sort of problems and these competitions go on to provide data and solutions of value to firms for future contracts," he wrote in his original proposal.
"It doesn't really bother me that it didn't happen," Carlisle said this week. "Sometimes ideas have a way of slipping into the mist and someone rediscovers them. If that happens 10 years down the line, that's fine.
"We have to keep generating ideas and possibilities and shop them around. We're not going to move forward unless we do that. The Planning Board has a number of duties, but if your title is ‘Planning Board,' it kind of suggests where you should be."
Carlisle said that in addition being asked to "put out fires" and deal with immediate issues that come up, the Planning Board has three main areas of work: altering or recommending for removal obsolete bylaws that still are on the books; adapting the town's bylaws to new issues that come up, like the technology attendant with the coming 5G technological shift; and adapting existing bylaws to accommodate changes in use.
"A specific example of that is the short-term rental market, which we have been keeping tabs on," Carlisle said. "We have been hesitant to create a bylaw to create any regulation yet. There are quite a few lawsuits in Massachusetts about short-term rental regulation."
Beck, meanwhile, has specific thoughts on the process that should be used for updating the Master Plan.
"Look at the towns you love, look at the communities you love, look regionally at what people are doing," he said. "Plagiarism is OK in developing your town code or your town Master Plan. Experience is the best teacher, but it also can be the most expensive one. We don't need to make the mistakes other towns have made.
"We need to take advantage of all the learning, all the tools that towns and planners have come up with to see what would work for Williamstown and not rely exclusively on planning tools and techniques that are 70 years or at least 30 years old."
That last part refers to the core of the town's zoning bylaw, which was born in the 1950s and revised four decades later, and its emphasis on single-use zoning.
"Maybe you can come up with some form-based [zoning] tools," Beck said. "That requires some ground work, input, community-wide conversations. Imagine you're moving to something like form-based codes where what matters is what that building looks like in Williamstown. … Maybe 10 years from now you want more mixed use development that still looks like our small town. That means you need to have that conversation today."
Beck stressed that the Planning Board's conversations should pull in as many stake-holders as possible and said he plans to be a participant no matter what happens on June 23.
"I really hope that my engagement with the Master Plan is from the perspective of the Planning Board," he said. "But there is no world in which -- whether I'm on the Planning Board or not -- I'm not an engaged member of the community who remains involved wherever I can.
"Engagement with the community, trying to be part of shaping the town where you want to live and the town I want my kids to live in is essential."
Carlisle agreed about the importance of the Planning Board's work … even if doing that work sometimes makes one the target of derision.
"Any time I've run into someone who was a current or former member of a Planning Board anywhere in the country, they've agreed on one thing: It's a thankless job," Carlisle said. "It doesn't matter how much good you think you're doing, someone is going to attack you.
"I'm willing to accept that because the Planning Board is an important piece of town government."

Tags: election 2020,   Planning Board,   town elections,   

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Williamstown Preparing Town Meeting Warrant for August

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday began going over the revised annual town meeting warrant for the rescheduled gathering on Aug. 18.
Much of the agenda looks as it did when plans for a May meeting were put on hold at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic this winter.
But Town Manager Jason Hoch explained that there will be adjustments to the fiscal 2021 spending plan.
"We have three levers to deal with in terms of budget right now," Hoch said. "The first is reducing the proposed budget in some areas. In some cases, there are areas where we can pull back or delay [spending]. We have better information now than we had back in January.
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