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Williamstown Planning Board Continues to Grapple with Dimensional Change Proposal

By Stephen Dravis
iBerkshires Staff
03:46AM / Sunday, November 28, 2021
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The Williamstown Planning Board and Community Development Director Andrew Groff meet virtually earlier this month.
 
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board this month continued to discuss major revisions to the zoning bylaw that it could bring to town meeting as early as this May.
 
But a familiar difference of opinion continues to keep the panel from agreeing on one of the more sweeping changes on the table.
 
Chair Chris Winters, who went through the entire bylaw and proposed a series of changes to give the board a starting point for its discussion, has advocated for reducing the frontage and area requirements for housing lots in all the residential zones.
 
Winters reasons that if the town requires less land per home, it will allow for more usable building lots, which should increase the overall supply of housing and, hence, make home ownership more affordable.
 
In the town's General Residence district, where most residents live, such a change also would have the effect of matching the bylaw to the conditions on the ground for dozens of homes. Currently, homes built on lots that predate zoning are categorized as "pre-existing nonconforming" and present more obstacles for homeowners looking to alter their structures.
 
For most of the housing lots in town, the change would mean reducing the minimum lot area from 10,000 square feet to 6,666 square feet, the minimum frontage from 100 feet to 66 feet and the minimum side and rear setbacks from 15 feet to 10 feet.
 
Winters has proposed, as a starting point for discussion, replicating the same one-third reduction to the dimensional requirements in Rural Residence 2, a much more expansive district that covers most of the habitable land in South Williamstown.
 
Stephanie Boyd has generally been open to the idea of proposing the change in GR. But she has expressed hesitancy about applying the change in RR2, where she fears it will lead to more development pressure on already struggling farms.
 
"I clearly value the open space and farmland," Boyd said. "If what we need is more houses, let's put more houses where more houses should be. … If we're looking for a net increase in more houses, what's the best approach to get there? Putting it in General Residence is what's good for our community."
 
Winters argued that even with a reduction from the current 2 1/2 acres required to build a home in RR2, the lot size requirement still would be significant.
 
"I think this just comes down to what is acceptable change," Winters said. "What is the minimum amount of change we can accept in the interest of diverse housing and affordable housing, and where can we see it happen? I would posit that 1 2/3-acre lots are still big lots.
 
"I would posit that there is much to be said about the community coming together across its residential zones and saying, 'Yes, we want to be part of a change that would increase opportunities for housing.' But I won't deny that any time you reduce a dimensional requirement you increase the opportunity that new things will happen. That's kind of the point of this."
 
Boyd contended that it is not clear that changing the lot size in the rural district will lead to more affordable housing. 
 
"I need more help to think about what the impacts might be," she said. "I need more to decide one way or the other. I just know I'm concerned because we keep losing that resource [open land] out there, and we don't lose it to housing for people who need housing. … I don't know how [reducing lot size requirements] is going to lead to the outcome you want." 
 
"Presumably, it would lead to more buildable lots," Winters replied.
 
"But it's buildable lots for who, right?" Boyd said. "For people who have a lot of money."
 
Peter Beck suggested a framework for thinking about the potential tradeoffs involved in changing the required dimensions in RR2.
 
"I have a question I want us to think about — not for tonight but prior to the next meeting," Beck said. "Whether reducing the lot size in the rural area from 2 1/2 [acres] to 1 2/3 or not is a more effective tool for affordability or a more effective tool for open land conservation. We have these important and sometimes conflicting priorities, but which of those moves would have a bigger impact on each of those priorities?
 
"What I mean is, does reducing that lot size from 2-½ to 1-⅔ have a bigger impact on affordability and less impact on rural densification than leaving it as is has on preserving open spaces. … I think if you fully developed the area at 2 1/2 or 1 2/3, either way you lose the open lands."
 
Winters suggested that the issue may not be fully resolved by the board.
 
"I don't think we're going to agree on this, and that's fine," he said. "Unanimity is nice when it happens, but it's not required."
 
That said, the Planning Board this fall did reach consensus on a number of potential changes that it might send to the annual town meeting next year, including: the creation of a new line in the use regulation table to allow three- and four-family homes, treating the same as the two-family homes already allowed in General Residence, RR2, RR3 and the Southern Gateway district; allowing the conversion of a existing hotels, motels or nursing homes to residential units; and tweaks to the major residential development section of the bylaw that would make such developments more possible.
 
The board also is proposing to amend the language at the top of the 118-page zoning bylaw to reflect a current town priority, adding the phrase, "to promote a diverse and affordable mix of housing types," to the section on the bylaw's purpose.
 
Since all the substantive changes to the zoning law under consideration are designed to add housing options, they likely will be covered by last year's amendments to the commonwealth's Zoning Act, which allows such changes to be enacted by a simple majority at town meeting instead of the traditional two-thirds supermajority.

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