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Sweetwood has proposed an overlay district to allow it to rent some assisted living units as regular apartments.

Williamstown Planners Balk at Sweetwood Zoning Proposal

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board last week encouraged the owner of the Sweetwood Independent Living Community to take another stab at a proposed bylaw amendment that would allow for multifamily housing at the Cold Spring Road facility.
 
After CareOne attorney Jeffrey Grandchamp laid out a proposal to create an overlay district for the Route 7 parcel, a couple of board members raised concerns that the overlay could pave the way for a complete conversion of the site to multifamily housing and an end to assisted living for seniors.
 
"Sweetwood was created around 1980," Roger Lawrence said. "It was a special exception to create a large apartment building in our rural zone, which this community for generations has safeguarded as its rural zone. This was something no one would have dreamed of except we saw a need to provide for our aging population. I think that made sense.
 
"I think if someone came forward to create a 70-unit apartment building in the rural zone, that would have been turned down instantaneously.”
 
As Lawrence noted, Sweetwood operates under a special permit that allows for an "assisted living residence" on the property that spans two zoning districts, Rural Residence 2 and Rural Residence 3.
 
Last year, CareOne talked about asking town meeting to rezone the property as a non-contiguous "island" of the nearby Southern Gateway District and simultaneously change the use table for Southern Gateway to allow multifamily housing in Southern Gateway.
 
The reason was that the New Jersey-based company does not feel that it is economically viable to operate Sweetwood solely as an assisted living facility. It hopes that renting some of the facility's units as "regular" apartments would allow it to continue the operation long-term.
 
After negative feedback from the Planning Board and concerns raised by current residents, CareOne abandoned plans to bring a "landowners petition" warrant article to the May 2023 annual town meeting.
 
This time around, Grandchamp brought a proposal that has the support of the current Sweetwood occupants' Residents Council. Grandchamp and the council president told the Planning Board at its Tuesday meeting that most of the residents are in favor of the plan because they now have a negotiated a contract with CareOne that preserves the services currently provided at Sweetwood no matter how many units are converted to multifamily residences.
 
The overlay district CareOne now is proposing an overlay district where "Multifamily Dwelling use may [be allowed] as a principal or accessory use together with other uses permitted on the same parcel of land," under a new special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
 
Lawrence and Planning Board Chair both expressed concern about the idea that multifamily housing could be the "principal or accessory use" at the site.
 
"What I do not see in this zoning proposal is any provision for the continuing use for our seniors," Lawrence said. "It feels as if that's going away completely.”
 
Beck agreed.
 
"Since this is a zoning change that would outlive the current operator, I would prefer, above all, that this remain a premier retirement community forever," Beck said. "We should look at this assuming [Sweetwood] might go out of business, at which point this becomes the underlying district for the next operator, who won't have a contract with our current residence, who won't be CareOne.
 
"If it's 'principal or accessory,' then the next owner has a 70-unit building that they can operate as a multifamily building or a retirement community. … If the town wants an apartment building off Route 7 next to the high school on the hill, fine. We can do that. But that's not the indication I've gotten from work on this board or on the Comprehensive Plan.”
 
Lawrence questioned whether the need to supplement the assisted living business with "regular" apartment rentals is less a market issue than a CareOne issue. And he pointed to other assisted living facilities in the region that are thriving.
 
Peter Mehlin, the president of the Residents Council, pointed to a specific market change outside CareOne's control that is costing it assisted living occupants.
 
"As for the reason some places are working and some are not, it's continuing care,"Mehlin said. "When Sweetwood was built, Sweetbrook [Rehabilitation and Nursing Center] was there. People came to Sweetwood knowing that if they needed nursing facilities, there was one next door.
 
"Now, they go to Williamstown Commons — not quite the same thing. Places like Kimball Farms [in Lenox] have stages, where you move from independent to assisted care to active care to memory loss. People are going to Kimball Farms for that reason, not because they don't like Sweetwood.”
 
Lawrence also speculated that some current Sweetwood residents may feel pressure to support the current zoning proposal from CareOne because the facility's owner is on record saying that without some zoning fix, the facility will shut down.
 
Mehlin, who spoke to the board against the 2023 CareOne proposal, said the company's efforts over the last year show its commitment to operate the facility to serve the current residents.
 
Grandchamp said he would bring the board's concerns back to his client to see if CareOne wants to amend the language in the draft bylaw he showed the planners on Tuesday.
 
"I think it's extremely important, as Peter [Mehlin] noted, that residents are behind the plan," Grandchamp said. "This provides an opportunity to do two things: to continue the housing there for individual seniors while, at the same time, addressing the shortage of residential housing we have in town.”
 
Beck indicated he might support the proposal — which does not need the Planning Board's recommendation to go to town meeting for a vote — if the apartments were clearly accessory or subsidiary to the assisted living part of the operation.
 
"If this [draft] is the version CareOne is committed to, they're going to town meeting with it regardless of our recommendation,"Beck said. "But it would be easier to recommend something that was explicitly subsidiary to retirement and the current use rather than this dual existing dual principal use, which, regardless of CareOne and the contract [with current residents] is not going to bind any future owner.
 
"I really think it needs that accessory language.”
 
In other business on Tuesday, the Planning Board advanced a proposal from the Sweetfarm Homeowners Association to have the town take ownership of the road and infrastructure that serves residents in the neighborhood off Henderson Road.
 
The Sweet Farm Road development was built around 2005 with a waiver from the town's subdivision rules. The HOA is asking that the town accept the cul de sac and responsibility for plowing and maintenance, an action that requires a vote of town meeting.
 
The board voted unanimously that the development conformed with the conditions the board granted in 2001 and 2005 to allow the construction — pending a signoff from the town's Department of Public Works, which is working with the HOA. The vote keeps the proposal to accept the road on track for May's annual town meeting.
 
Finally, the board further refined its one proposed warrant article for the meeting: a bylaw change to allow for the development of "cottage court" housing in the General Residence District.
 
It discussed and generally agreed inserting language that will clarify that cottage court homes cannot be utilized primarily as short-term rentals. Although the planners have asked the Select Board to develop a townwide bylaw on short-term rentals, commonly referred to as Airbnbs, board members expressed little confidence such a bylaw could make it to town meeting by this May.
 
Without a protection against the smaller, high-density homes being used primarily as vacation rentals, the planners fear the specter of such use will sink the cottage court proposal altogether.
 
The Select Board on Monday, one day before the Planning Board meeting, discussed sending a survey to current operators of short-term rentals in town to collect data that some Select Board members say they need before proposing a bylaw.
 

Tags: Planning Board,   Sweetwood,   

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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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