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Jennifer Howlett of the League of Women Voters, top left, moderates a forum with Williamstown Planning Board Candidates Kenneth Kuttner (top right), Roger Lawrence and Susan Puddester.

Williamstown Planning Board Candidates Make Cases at Forum

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The three candidates for a single seat on the Planning Board agreed this month that housing is the top issue confronting the body in the year ahead.
 
Incumbent Susan Puddester and challengers Kenneth N. Kuttner and Roger TW Lawrence participated in a virtual candidates forum hosted by the local chapter of League of Women Voters.
 
The candidates fielded seven questions generated by local residents. Two of the queries were directly on the topic of housing, and the issue figured prominently into the trio's responses to another question: What are your top three priorities for the board?
 
"Planning for housing, I think, is the top priority," said Lawrence, who caught the question first.
 
Puddester, who is seeking her second five-year term on the board, concurred.
 
"I'd like to continue focusing on housing as the Planning Board has done while I've been on the board," she said.
 
After adding that directing the process for a new town Master Plan is also among the board's tasks for 2021-22, Puddester noted that housing regulations are part of how the town can achieve the objectives in that plan.
 
"Reflecting on the recommendations of the 2002 Master Plan, we are seeing some of the same issues now," Puddester said. "Some of the recommendations made then are appropriate, such as mixed-use housing developments. There should be more options for different kinds of housing available to meet a diverse set of needs. We should expand the availability of homes for first-time homebuyers, retirees, single people.
 
"Then and now, housing options are limited. Employers are unable to recruit workers because of the lack of appropriate housing. And many workers have long since moved from Williamstown to live in more affordable communities."
 
Kuttner talked about the need for "relatively high density" housing in the town's center during his opening remarks and was happy to return to the issue when his turn came to answer the first question posed by moderator Jennifer Howlett.
 
"It's a complex problem," Kuttner said. "What I'd like to do on the Planning Board is bring to bear my perspective as an economist and think about this in a systematic way. Particularly, I think it's worth thinking about this in terms of what you might think of as the demand side of the market. I think we need to identify who the prospective buyers are, what they're needs are, what they're looking for. Are they looking for town homes? Are they looking for single family? I think understanding what that side of the market is like is essential to formulating our plan going forward.
 
"The supply side of the market is also key. The problem is we don't have a lot of undeveloped land in this town, and I don't think we should be converting farmland to subdivisions. I think that would be a terrible outcome. We need to figure out ways to use land close to the town center more intensively and figure out if there are town-imposed restrictions with zoning or whatever that are making it harder for the private sector to provide the housing that we need."
 
Lawrence said the town needs housing solutions that focus on home ownership.
 
"We have several existing programs for affordable housing," Lawrence said. "All are big project, developer driven, perpetually subsidized apartments for rental occupation. The exception to that is Habitat for Humanity. We've completely ignored the element of housing that many, if not most occupants, prefer, that is owner-occupied housing that has pride of place."
 
Lawrence said he has three potential solutions to the town's housing issue which he detailed on his website, rogerlawrenceforplanningboard.com. The first two would involve town subsidies for homeowners -- a tax abatement for those who add accessory dwelling units for their properties and a home "buy down" program similar to ones used on Cape Cod to provide subsidies to income-qualified buyers whose homes are then deed-restricted to remain affordable. Lawrence' third initiative would have Williamstown create an owner-occupied affordable housing subdivision like ones he points to in Aspen, Colo.
 
"The first two of my new ideas involve utilizing or adding to existing town neighborhoods in ways that introduce very little change to existing neighborhood character," Lawrence said. "The third involves potentially hundreds of homes for working families in discrete areas while maintaining the overall rural character of our town as a whole."
 
Later, Lawrence took a swipe at the current Planning Board by targeting its 2018 housing initiative that would have allowed for greater housing density in certain parts of town. He said it would have gutted the zoning laws that "are responsible for the handsome appearance of the housing project now under construction at the end of Cole Avenue" and was tailored to the needs of Williams College.
 
The 330 Cole Ave. development of the former Photech property was not, in fact, constrained by local zoning bylaws because the commonwealth's Chapter 40B statute allows development of affordable housing without respect to local zoning in communities, like Williamstown, where at least 10 percent of housing units are not designated as affordable.
 
"That project was permitted under 40B," Community Development Director Andrew Groff confirmed on Monday afternoon. "Local zoning was essentially waived."
 
Puddester, meanwhile, refuted the notion that the 2018 proposal was driven by the college.
 
"I'm not sure where you got the idea, Roger, that what we proposed in 2018 was specifically directed to accommodate the college," Puddester said. "The Planning Board worked with an organization in the state called the Mass Housing Partnership. We had advice from them. They came to town. We had several workshops. We got feedback from people. There were signs up in town asking people to communicate with the Planning Board to let us know what they wanted.
 
"The idea for the changes we proposed was inclusion and to increase the [housing] density in town. … You opposed it then, and you're opposing it now. If we don't have a supply of housing, how are we going to increase the diversity in our town?"
 
Lawrence replied by criticizing the process that led to the 2018 bylaw proposal, which ultimately was pulled by the board at its April 2018 public hearing on the board's warrant articles.
 
As for the college's influence, that came up as early as Lawrence' opening statement that claimed the school is "overrepresented" on the Planning Board.
 
"I say this because it is what countless residents have told me," he said. "Decisions of the board sometimes represent college interests at the expense of other residents of our community."
 
For the record, the Planning Board does not enact zoning bylaw changes. It proposes bylaw changes to town meeting, which must approve changes by either a two-thirds or simple majority vote, depending on the nature of the bylaw (in 2020, Gov. Baker signed legislation allowing zoning changes that seek to increase housing options to be approved by simple majorities at town meeting).
 
The Planning Board as currently constituted has one member out of five, Chris Winters, who is an employee of Williams College. Lawrence' charge of overrepresentation may have been directed at both his opponents. Kuttner is an economics professor at the school; Puddester's husband, Fred Puddester, is the college's vice president for finance and administration, who announced in February that he is retiring this summer.
 
Susan Puddester objected to the idea that one out of five members of the Planning Board signified "overrepresentation."
 
"The college is the largest employer in Williamstown, and I don't think it's fair to eliminate people who have a connection to the college in any way from being allowed to serve," she said.
 
Later, Puddester made light of the idea.
 
"I don't have any more influence over the college administration than anybody else," she said. "I might have a little more influence over my husband than anybody else, but maybe not even that much."
 
All three agreed that the new Master Plan needs to be a priority for the Planning Board after the May 11 election.
 
Puddester said that the current board has been waiting for the results of the 2020 Census to help inform the Master Plan process.
 
"It's critical," she said. "We know it needs to be done. It's going to be a really big project, and we're going to be asking for a lot of community input. Right now, it's the most important thing, other than housing diversity, that the Planning Board will be working on."
 
Kuttner noted that he had experience working on a strategic plan for his former employer, Oberlin College, and that he already has been reviewing the 2002 plan.
 
"There were some good things that came out of it … a lot of things were left undone," Kuttner said. "Interestingly, the housing issues we're discussing here were salient [then]. The same problems we have today were problems then."
 
Lawrence talked about the need to draw in stakeholders from throughout the town and the region into the process.
 
"Conditions in Williamstown are very different than they were 20 years ago, and it's long overdue for an update in that process," he said.
 
Another issue where the three candidates found common ground was a topic that planners hope will not be an issue for the board in 2020-21: cannabis cultivation.
 
All three candidates said they support the bylaw amendment the Planning Board has proposed to June's annual town meeting. If two-thirds of the meeting attendees share that sentiment, the board likely will have more time in the year ahead to focus on other topics, like housing regulations.
 
"What the Planning Board has been doing the last year plus is figure out a way to impose some restrictions, some parameters on cultivation and other activities associated with it to address the concerns of those who think it might get out of hand or impose some side effects or externalities on the community," Kuttner said. 
 
"I think, in general, the Planning Board has done a terrific job of trying to grapple with those issues. I know it's super hard, and I give a lot of credit to Susan and her colleagues. And I know nobody is happy with it. I know there are those who would like to see zero cultivation, maybe even turn back the 2017, revisit the 2017 town meeting vote. And there are those who would like to see unconstrained marijuana cultivation. Nothing is ever going to make everybody happy. Having said that, I think they constructed a pretty good compromise."

Tags: election 2021,   town elections,   


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Williamstown Zoning Board OKs Cell Tower

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The fourth time was a charm for the developer seeking to build a wireless communications tower on Oblong Road.
 
By a vote of 5-0, the Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday approved a special permit for Pittfield's Evolution Site Services to build a 153-foot cell tower on land leased from Phelps Farm.
 
Evolution originally came to the town with a proposal for a 165-foot tower that would have accommodated up to five cell service providers. The final project as approved shaved 12 feet from that plan and limits the developer to four spaces for cell companies, starting with AT&T, which was a co-applicant on the request.
 
The decision came at the third continuation of a public hearing that began at the ZBA's March meeting.
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