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Williamstown voters could be in for a lengthy town meeting on Tuesday. This year's meeting returns to the elementary school gym after two years of outdoors meetings at Weston Field.

Williamstown Facing Prospect of Lengthy Town Meeting

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Increasingly, residents and town officials are talking about the problems with a town meeting form of government, and one of the issues raised is the length of the meeting and how they create an advantage for those who can attend a late meeting on a Tuesday night.
 
This Tuesday's meeting likely could add fuel to that fire.
 
Residents will meet on May 17 at 7 p.m. at Williamstown Elementary School to tackle a 49-article meeting warrant that includes 10 bylaw amendments put forth by the town's Planning Board.
 
Some of those articles have sparked lengthy and impassioned debate at the board level, and it is fair to expect to hear many of the same articles on Tuesday night.
 
It promises to bolster arguments like that made by then-Select Board candidate Randall Fippinger in a candidates forum last month.
 
"I have been very frustrated with the form of town meeting because I think there's a lot of privilege to: at a certain time, at dinner time, to be able to go to that," he said. "It's actually the reason why I'll be supporting the stipends for committee members because we have to find ways to remove barriers to participation.
 
"I like direct input from town. Why can't we have [town meeting] on a Saturday? Why can't we have multiple days? Why can't we have a conversation [one day] and then allow people to vote?"
 
Fippinger this week was elected to the Select Board, along with Jane Patton, who was re-elected to the five-person body. At the same April candidates forum, Patton had this to say:
 
"I often get very frustrated when people say to me, ‘The town voted for X,' " Patton said. "And I'll think, 'A few hundred people in town voted for X.' I think the principle and democracy of [town meeting] is lovely, but I don't know that it continues to be practical.
 
"I don't know have an answer for what the next evolution of it is. But it is obvious that, at most, we have 400 or 500 people. … As much as I hate, in some ways, to let it go, it might be time."
 
In the meantime, Tuesday will be the night residents get to have their say on a number of questions that have divided the Planning Board and attracted dozens of letters and hours of in-person testimony before that body.
 
Actually, there is broad agreement on the Planning Board about most of the articles on the warrant, including a measure to change the board's purpose (adding a clause about promoting diverse and affordable housing) and amendments to ease some restrictions on multi-family homes in the General Residence Zone and allow residences on the second floors of commercial properties.
 
Other articles, like Article 41, cleared the Planning Board on a vote of 3-2. That measure would allow more three- and four-unit residences in the town's Rural Residence districts (RR2 and RR3).
 
The articles that have generated the most debate have been Article 44 and Article 45.
 
The former would scale back the dimensional requirements for homes in the General Residence district by one-third — reducing the required lot frontage, for example, from 100 feet to 66 feet.
 
The latter, Article 45, would reduce the dimensional requirements by the same proportion in Rural Residence 2, reducing the current 150-foot minimum frontage to 100 feet and the current 2 1/2 acres per home to 1 2/3 acres.
 
Like Article 41, Article 45 cleared the Planning Board by just a 3-2 margin.
 
In each case, opponents have argued that while they may support smaller lot sizes in GR, the town's rural, agricultural district should be treated differently. They maintain that allowing for smaller lot sizes will increase development pressure on family farms and, potentially, lead to the loss of farmland without doing anything to increase the supply of housing that is affordable to a wider range of residents (the motivating factor behind most of the bylaw changes proposed).
 
Opponents of Articles 41 and 45 also have raised concerns about the effect on the water table in RR2 from leaching from the septic systems required by life beyond the town's water and sewer lines.
 
Article 44, the reduction of dimensional requirements in GR (the most populated district in the town), also has detractors.
 
Planning Board member Roger Lawrence maintains that allowing denser development in town without requiring such development to have an affordability component will lead to more high-end development that won't address the diversity motive but will destroy existing neighborhoods.
 
Lawrence in March laid out a number of potential alternatives to what he might call the blunt instrument of simply cutting the dimensional requirements.
 
Both Articles 44 and 45 continue principles laid out by the Planning Board's Chris Winters last summer. Winters argues that by allowing smaller lots, the town would allow for more homes; according to the law of supply and demand, increased supply should put a downward pressure on price, Winters reasons. As a "happy coincidence," setting the dimensional requirements one-third lower than they currently are in GR would bring into compliance a number of residences that are currently "pre-existing non-conformities" that were built on smaller lots before the advent of zoning.
 
As for including RR2 — at one stage part of the same article as GR but later broken into its own proposal — Winters has argued that any "sacrifice" needed to change the town's zoning needs to be borne by all residents in all parts of town. He has referred to a 2018 effort to allow for denser housing development that was killed when residents argued it was "singling out" some neighborhoods.
 
Zoning changes are not the only ones that may spur discussion at Tuesday's meeting.
 
Several fiscal questions also have divided the committees that spend the winter and spring considering articles and making recommendations to the May annual town meeting.
 
A $19,000 appropriation to the Sand Springs Recreation Center (one of four non-profits to receive town funding) that was overwhelmingly approved by town meeting last spring was recommended by the Finance Committee on a vote of 8-1 and by the Select Board by a vote of 3-2.
 
Four grants from the town's Community Preservation Act funds are on the warrant. One, a $50,000 grant to the Store at Five Corners Stewardship Association, made it out of the Community Preservation Committee by a slim 4-3 majority. The Fin Comm recommended passage on a vote of 5-3 (with one abstention). The Select Board recommended against granting the money on a vote of 0-2 (with three abstentions).
 
Two articles are on the warrant by way of citizens petition.
 
One, a resolution supporting the Fair Share Amendment that will be put before voters statewide in November, has the 4-1 support of the Select Board.
 
The second — and 49th article on the 49-article warrant — would create a modest stipend ($25.60 per "open meeting" attended) for members of town boards and committees. The stipend system is intended to reduce barriers to town service for community members who are prohibited due to the cost associated with attending regular meetings — like transportation and/or childcare.
 
The Select Board, which was tasked last year by town meeting with studying whether board and committee members ought to have compensation, voted 1-4 against recommending Article 49's passage by Tuesday's meeting. The town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee voted in favor of the stipends.

Tags: town meeting 2022,   

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