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A typical cottage court development considered by the Williamstown Planning Board earlier this year.

Williamstown Planners Told to Consider Townwide Measures

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board last week began a discussion about a bylaw proposal that would allow greater density in residential development in the town's rural districts and complement a "cottage court" bylaw it is developing for the core of town.
 
The cottage court bylaw, which the board is aiming to bring to town meeting in May, would allow up to 12 free-standing dwelling units per acre in the town's General Residence zoning district, where homes are currently allowed on lots measuring at least 10,000 square feet, or a little less than a quarter of an acre.
 
At its Oct. 10 meeting, the board heard an objection from a resident who questioned why all of the board's bylaw amendment proposals in recent years have been directed at the GR district and not other areas of town.
 
"We all need to sacrifice to accommodate affordable housing in this community, but it seems that the General Residence district is the one making all the sacrifices," Jeffrey Thomas told the planners.
 
"Almost all the affordable housing bylaws passed by this Planning Board in recent memory have applied only to GR. And I think it's a mistake for you all to bring forward this cottage court proposal that only applies to the GR district without something — it doesn't have to be the same thing, I think we all recognize that there are different conditions in Rural Residence. … I don't think it's a problem if it's something different, but for you to bring nothing, again, for Rural Residence, I think is a mistake."
 
Roger Lawrence said he appreciated Thomas' concerns and that the board did plan to address the issue of density in RR at a future (post-2024) town meeting.
 
"Maybe this sounds naive to say, but Ken [Kuttner] and I have talked about this, and we'd perhaps be asking for the trust of our voters that we'd keep our word and, in the coming year, bring a rural vision that addresses the concern of everyone," Lawrence said.
 
Thomas, who generally thanked the planners for their work on drafting zoning bylaws to bring to town meeting, was dubious about the idea that rules for the RR district could be addressed at a later date.
 
"For you all, [Rural Residence] is just a third rail, frankly," Thomas said. "I think that's a stretch that you're going to earn the trust of people who live in General Residence, and let's not forget that a majority of voters in this community live in General Residence.
 
Cory Campbell suggested that the current cottage court bylaw draft could be amended to allow the "pocket neighborhoods" anywhere in town where there was town water and sewer — services that do not currently extend to the RR districts but could at some future date, he said.
 
Peter Beck said the proposed bylaw could be tweaked to make it apply to all zones proportionately by basing the intensity of cottage court development on a ratio of the existing square footage requirement.
 
"It would be saying, 'In this zone it's 12 per acre, and in that zone, it's 3 per acre,' which is, itself, the same 3X," Beck said. "I didn't do the math, but basically a 3X density of allowed density."
 
Kuttner pitched another option: ask town meeting to adopt an Open Space Residential Development bylaw. OSRDs "facilitate the construction and maintenance of housing," while encouraging "the permanent preservation of open space, agricultural land, forestry land, wildlife habitat, other natural resources including aquifers, waterbodies [and/or] wetlands, and historical and archeological resources," according to model bylaw language on the commonwealth's website.
 
Thomas also raised other potential unintended consequences of the cottage court bylaw currently on the table.
 
He suggested that it could be used to create small mobile home parks if a different Planning Board initiative — treating manufactured homes no differently in the bylaw than other homes — is passed by town meeting. And he raised the specter that a pocket park could be a de facto vacation property if the modest (maximum 1,200 square foot) residences in the "court" are marketed as short term rentals.
 
Town Planner Andrew Groff said he thought the existence of a separate bylaw specifically allowing mobile home parks only in overlay districts, like Pines Lodge, would override the possibility of a smaller manufactured home park, but he agreed Thomas' point was arguable and implied that it bore further study.
 
As for short-term rental or Airbnb question, Beck noted that the Planning Board considered a zoning bylaw on the issue a couple of years ago but ultimately decided to ask the Select Board to address it because a townwide bylaw, unlike a zoning bylaw, would: apply to all parts of town equally, require only simple majority for passage at town meeting and not convey a right of non-conformity for pre-existing homes.
 
"We can take that bylaw back and try to do it as a Planning Board bylaw with all the drawbacks that has," Beck said. "I really hope the Select Board takes it up. I don't know what to do other than sending it off to them half written and encouraging them strongly to take a look at it.
 
"You have more experience on the Select Board than any of us here," Beck told Thomas, a former member of the board.
 
Prior to Thomas' contributions during the public comment portion of Tuesday's meeting, the planners went line by line through the draft cottage court bylaw to see what questions members of the five-person board might have about the version drafted by Kuttner and Lawrence.
 
Much of the discussion centered around the extent to which the bylaw should constrain potential developers through specific design requirements — both for the property as a whole and for the individual residences that are built there.
 
"I might be against all constraints other than just envelope size," Ben Greenfield told his colleagues. "I see a cottage court being built with some sort of vision, and we don't know what that vision is. Any constraint [on developers] is just adding to their process."
 
Kuttner noted that some of the constraints in the draft bylaw were intended to allay the concerns of residents who might fear that the new form of development would radically alter neighborhoods.
 
"The constraints make it a little more saleable [to town meeting members]," Kuttner said.
 
Greenfield countered that including design elements in the proposed bylaw would not make it any more palatable to residents inclined against the idea.
 
"I don't think people who are against high density housing are going to say, if the pitch of the roof was X, ‘You know what? That would be good,' " Greenfield said. "I think people that tend to protest changes will protest change no matter what. So adding constraints on future ideas is really only hamstringing the future idea."

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Summer Street Residents Make Case to Williamstown Planning Board

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Neighbors of a proposed subdivision off Summer Street last week asked the Planning Board to take a critical look at the project, which the residents say is out of scale to the neighborhood.
 
Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity was at Town Hall last Tuesday to present to the planners a preliminary plan to build five houses on a 1.75 acre lot currently owned by town's Affordable Housing Trust.
 
The subdivision includes the construction of a road from Summer Street onto the property to provide access to five new building lots of about a quarter-acre apiece.
 
Several residents addressed the board from the floor of the meeting to share their objections to the proposed subdivision.
 
"I support the mission of Habitat," Summer Street resident Christopher Bolton told the board. "There's been a lot of concern in the neighborhood. We had a neighborhood meeting [Monday] night, and about half the houses were represented.
 
"I'm impressed with the generosity of my neighbors wanting to contribute to help with the housing crisis in the town and enthusiastic about a Habitat house on that property or maybe two or even three, if that's the plan. … What I've heard is a lot of concern in the neighborhood about the scale of the development, that in a very small neighborhood of 23 houses, five houses, close together on a plot like this will change the character of the neighborhood dramatically."
 
Last week's presentation from NBHFH was just the beginning of a process that ultimately would include a definitive subdivision plan for an up or down vote from the board.
 
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