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An artist's elevation of a concept for new duplexes on a 6.6-acre parcel on Water Street in Williamstown.

Wiliamstown Residents Raise Concerns About Water Street Housing Concept

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Residents who live near the site of a planned housing development on Water Street are expressing concerns about the now 28-unit project under consideration at the site of the former Grange Hall.
 
Architect and resident Hicks Stone was back before the board of the Affordable Housing Trust, this time with his partner, Bill Freeman, to update the panel on Wednesday on preliminary plans to build duplexes on a portion of the 6.6-acre site.
 
Stone began by sharing what he hoped would be welcome news for the trustees: By placing four apartments in the former Grange Hall itself and reconfiguring the layout of the duplexes, the pair now conceives 28 units — up from 22 at its last presentation — with seven dedicated to income-restricted, affordable housing.
 
When Stone presented to the AHT Board in June, the plan was for six income-restricted units.
 
In addition, and partly in response to comments heard at the June meeting, Hicks and Freeman have added a single garage to each of the units in the 12 duplexes to allow prospective residents to have either an additional parking space or room for storage.
 
Although Trustee Daniel Gura suggested the developers consider not making it too easy for residents to own multiple cars, the response from the board members ranged from neutral to supportive of the project.
 
The reaction from potential abutters was considerably more negative.
 
"The concept is great," said Patrick Quinn, a former member of the AHT board. "I really like the sustainability. I like the opportunities for affordable units.
 
"My feeling is this is not the site for that. It's much too large in terms of its now more than 11 separate structures being built on that one site. … Basically, it's a rural residential area. The density you're proposing is way too large for residential rural."
 
Quinn lives at 630 Green River Road, a tenth of a mile from the former Grange Hall.
 
Timothy Jay of 622 Green River Road agreed.
 
"All of us in the audience are neighbors, and I think we all share deep concerns about this," Jay said. "I think it's going to end up looking like a mobile home park."
 
The potential neighbors' concerns about increasing housing density in the area were partly reminiscent of issues raised by a resident of Cole Avenue about adding density through development of the former Photech Mill site, which opened as the 330 Cole Ave. development last year.
 
Stephen Walt of 587 Water St., directly across the road from the Grange Hall site, said his chief concern was parking and the possibility that visitors to the duplexes might attempt to park along Water Street itself, where it is prohibited.
 
"I also have to go along with [Quinn]: The nature of that neighborhood would be radically changed," Walt said. "Most of us who moved there moved there with the notion that this is the kind of neighborhood we were going to live in.
 
"If you want to put in three or four units and make them all affordable, great. Now, [the plan] feels like a housing development. It is a housing development."
 
The seven affordable units in the developers' plan are designed to meet the requirements of the federal low-income housing tax credit program, which gives developers financial support if at least 25 percent of the units in a given development are income-restricted.
 
Current projections would offer the market rate units in the development for $650,000, Stone told the trustees on Wednesday. The seven affordable units would be marketed for about $185,000, which would make them accessible to residents earning just less than 80 percent of the area median income, Stone said.
 
The cost of owning a home in the planned development also would be reduced because the pair plan to follow "passive house" design principles that maximize energy efficiency.
 
"We share a desire to decarbonize the construction environment — to produce healthy, green and, in this case, combustion-free, net-zero housing as well as affordable housing," Stone said.
 
"I live in a passive house I built five years ago," Freeman said. "It can reduce your primary energy demand by 90 percent. … My whole house is about 3,000 square feet with a 1,000 square foot apartment, and my utility bills for the entire year are $1,200."
 
To date, Hicks and Stone have not asked for financial backing either from the trustees or from the Community Preservation Committee. They have come to the Affordable Housing board twice in two months to inform the town and garner support from the one town body dedicated solely to the housing issue.
 
Most of the concerns expressed by abutters in Wednesday's meeting were not items directly under the AHT Board's purview but rather the kind of concerns that ultimately might be raised before the Zoning Board of Appeals, where the project ultimately may end up.
 
"You do know Williamstown is very fortunate because we've surpassed our 10 percent for affordable housing units," Quinn told the developers from the floor of the meeting. "Chapter 40B development is not something that would just be by right."
 
Under the commonwealth's Chapter 40B development rules, developers can get relief from some local zoning requirements if a municipality has less than 10 percent of its housing stock deemed "affordable" (essentially income-restricted) by the state. Towns and cities, however, can still choose to allow "40B development" even after they have crossed the 10 percent threshold.
 
One thing that was unclear at Wednesday's meeting: whether Williamstown had crossed that threshold.
 
In answer to Quinn's assertion that it had, Hicks said he recently checked with the commonwealth's Department of Housing and Community Development, which confirmed the town had not yet hit 10 percent. AHT board members Tom Sheldon and Andy Hogeland indicated that the discrepancy may stem from the fact that some recently added income-restricted housing has not been added to DHCD's official census and that other units that have been permitted at the third phase of the Cable Mills project have not yet been built.
 
"We're close," Hogeland said. "We probably will be over it before too long."
 
Regardless of the town's current status vis a vis the 10 percent threshold, two members of the trust's board offered counterpoints to those who might invoke the state minimum.
 
"You need to understand, there's a numerator and a denominator," Sheldon said, alluding to the fact the numerator, the number of income-restricted units, and denominator, the total number of housing units in a town, both can change.
 
"Part of the reason we're heading toward 10 percent is because there's been a significant reduction in the number of housing units in town. That's the fact. There may be various explanations why there are fewer housing units, probably including the elimination of the Spruces [Mobile Home Park in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene], which included 225 homes."
 
Gura said focusing on the 10 percent "target" was missing the point.
 
"If the purpose is, 'Just hit 10 percent,' then we shouldn't have these meetings anymore once we hit 10 percent," Gura said. "That's troubling to even bring up. That's a troubling thing to say."
 
In other business on Wednesday, the trustees elected Hogeland to succeed longtime chair Sheldon and welcomed three new board members: Robin Malloy, Kayla Servin and Cheryl Shanks.

Tags: housing development,   

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Williamstown Fire District Seeking Treasurer

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Williamstown Fire District is in the market for a new treasurer after Cory Thurston announced at last week's Prudential Committee meeting that he plans to step down from the office.
 
Thurston has served in the capacity since he was elected in May 2019 to what, at the time, was the district's clerk/treasurer position.
 
A lot changed in the three years that followed. The district broke the clerk and treasurer roles into two separate jobs, and it moved them from elected offices to positions appointed by the five-person Prudential Committee.
 
"That was changed from an elected official a few years ago to make sure the district had a qualified candidate," Thurston reminded the committee at its September meeting. "Because it is an important job. And the state requirements tend to grow exponentially as time moves forward."
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