Williamstown Planning Board Seeks Input on Short-Term Rental Proposal

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board last week laid out its initial thinking about a potential short-term rental bylaw that it wants to bring to town meeting as early as May.
 
As articulated at its Aug. 9 meeting, the board's goal is to allow residents and part-time residents to generate some revenue from their properties, allow those homes to provide needed additional rooms for tourists during peak periods and still prevent non-residents from buying one or more properties to create de facto motels in residential neighborhoods.
 
"We really do want to maintain short-term rentals as an economic opportunity for people in town," Chair Stephanie Boyd said. "We do like that short-term rentals are a way to expand town lodging during peak periods. We have these times when there are a lot of people in town and other times when there aren't any, so it doesn't make sense to have a lot of large hotels sitting around.
 
"The housing stock we have in town, we'd like to remain available for people who live here or are at least here for a large chunk of the year. And we'd also like to keep our residential areas residential. Our No. 1 concern is that short-term rentals are a real economic opportunity. … That's something we want to continue to support."
 
Boyd last Tuesday delivered a presentation developed by Peter Beck, who has taken the lead on researching the short-term rental question for the board.
 
For purposes of discussion, Beck outlined potential language for a bylaw that might meet the board's objectives, starting with a requirement that anyone offering a short-term rental must reside in the town at least 60 days of the year.
 
Rental property owners, who would have to register at town hall, would be limited to one "short-term rental registration" per year and those rentals could not be rented for more than 150 days per year.
 
Boyd stressed that the specifics in Beck's draft bylaws are starting points and that the board wants to seek input from residents — particularly those who currently rent their properties, either independently or through online services like Airbnb.
 
That feedback started coming in on Thursday night.
 
Anne Goodwin and Francine Field each brought concerns to the board about potential impacts of the planned regulation.
 
"I really appreciate … this first draft and your willingness to understand the residents," Field said. "I feel like you're really far away from a solution on the short-term rental because every time I read this, I had more concerns and questions arise.
 
"I did have a lot of people reach out to me in regard to this because of the economy and the price of homes. Some people moved here because of the short-term rental market, and it helps pay their mortgage."
 
Boyd interjected, "Those are the people we're trying to help."
 
Field said one problem some residents might run into is the hard cap of 150 days in the initial draft. She told the planners that she currently is just over that number in a calendar year.
 
"If I have to rent my home 170 days to feed my kids, heat the place and make my mortgage, I'm going to do that every day," she said. "And I'm not going to hide, either, what we have to do to survive.
 
"Once you put a hard number on it, not knowing what's going to happen with the economy and what things are costing … "
 
Field said the problem the board should address is the number of non-residents who own and rent properties in town, "who don't even set foot in this town."
 
Goodwin pointed out that the current draft did not address accessory dwelling units and how they would be handled under the bylaw.
 
"Can someone rent both their residence and the ADU?" she asked.
 
After a robust discussion and some give and take between residents and the three members of the board in attendance, Boyd noted again that the draft on the table was the board's "opening bid" and that it welcomed continued feedback either at future meetings or by email at planningboard@williamstownma.gov.
 
Earlier in the meeting, Boyd had laid out her vision for the process that would produce any bylaw recommendations to go to May's annual town meeting — starting with a period of information gathering and analysis from August through November.
 
In December, she proposed the board could draft warrant articles, if any, to bring forward, and it could present them to the Select Board in January. After making revisions in February, Boyd recommended two public hearings — one more than required by statute — in March and April.
 
"In December, we should say, these are the topics we're going to do so we can focus on our internal analysis and discussion and discussion with community members," Boyd said. "We also can consider if we need more meetings to discuss things."
 
As a rule, the Planning Board meets monthly. It also sometimes has administrative decisions on its agenda that can consume parts of those meetings.
 
This year, Boyd and Beck also are serving on the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, a product of the Planning Board, which is responsible for updating what the commonwealth calls a "master plan."
 
In the past — and certainly in the 2021-22 cycle — the Planning Board has been accused of "rushing" bylaw amendments with insufficient time for public input or education.
 
"It almost seems to me that instead of an annual cycle, we should think about a two-year cycle," Ken Kuttner said. "While, in parallel, we work on things we'd do for next May's town meeting.
 
"Given the quite compressed timeline, we have to really be thinking ahead."

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Flag Meant to Represent Inclusion Sparks Debate in Williamstown

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — One of the authors of a proposed bylaw amendment to allow the display of the Progress Pride on town flag poles said he welcomes more dialogue about the proposal.
 
"It's been a good learning experience through all of this," Mount Greylock Regional School sophomore Jack Uhas said last week.
 
"Any attempt to hinder a conversation in our community would be disappointing to me. I'm excited to hear what people have to say."
 
Uhas is the vice president of the middle-high school's Gender Sexuality Alliance, which developed the bylaw proposal that will be before Thursday's annual town meeting at Mount Greylock.
 
The advocacy group has been talking for some time about how to foster a public display of support for the LGBTQ-plus community.
 
"Last [school] year, we started thinking of ways we could make an impact in the wider community beyond Mount Greylock," Uhas said. "We talked about doing something like painting a crosswalk like they do in other communities.
 
"[Select Board member Randal Fippinger], who was the father of the GSA president last year, came in and talked to us. And, apparently, there were some Department of Transportation regulations that meant it wasn't feasible [to paint a crosswalk]. We pivoted to other strategies."
 
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