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Williamstown Planning Board Weighs Proposal for New Zoning Districts
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
02:24AM / Thursday, February 15, 2018
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Susan Puddester and Chris Kapiloff disagreed about the number of dwelling units that should be allowed per structure in a proposed zoning district.


The proposed new zoning districts in the draft bylaw; all currently are part of the General Residence district.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board on Tuesday debated the nuances of a zoning bylaw amendment it hopes will change the way the town regulates housing in its most populated district.
 
The board intends to ask town meeting to carve four new zoning districts out of the current General Residence District.
 
The intent is to both recognize how those neighborhoods were developed prior to the town's mid-'50s adoption of a zoning ordinance and to give property owners a path to creating small-scale multi-family housing on single-family lots.
 
The bylaw is the outcome of a year-long Planning Board study undertaken with a grant from the Massachusetts Housing Partnership that included community outreach sessions and sought to find ways to address the "missing middle" of housing options between detached single-family homes and large apartment complexes.
 
Just as important for the planners is the need to rationalize the town's code to reflect what already exists in the current General Residence district and bring properties that were "grandfathered" in as pre-existing, non-complying developments into compliance.
 
"This is an effort to make our zoning reflect the built environment on the ground that everybody likes," Planning Board Chairman Chris Kapiloff said on Tuesday night. "We're not trying to take building lots with lots of frontage and squish them down. … We're trying to make the law match what's actually there.
 
"I don't think there will be any lots where you can chop it in half and build two homes between two existing homes."
 
That said, many residents would have the option to create "detached accessory dwelling units," if they comply with setback requirements or more easily convert existing secondary buildings (garages, carriage houses) into apartments under the proposed bylaw.
 
The centerpiece is the creation of four new districts: Campus Residence, which mostly runs along the west side of Southworth Street; Mill Village Residence 1, which runs along the Hoosic River and includes the former Photech Mill property at 330 Cole Ave.; Mill Village Residence 2, a larger swath that runs to the south of MV1; and Village Residence, the largest new district in terms of acreage, which extends from Church Street at its northern extreme south to just beyond Main Street (Route 2).
 
"In a nutshell ... the current zone is entirely General Residence, a 100-foot frontage, 10,000-square-foot area zone," Town Planner and Community Development Director Andrew Groff wrote in an email regarding the bylaw proposal on Tuesday. "This, of course, makes the majority of the neighborhood non conforming dimensionally. One goal of this project is the make the zoning conform with what's already on the ground. Hopefully making it easier for folks to do simple projects like replacing a front porch."
 
For example, instead of that 100-foot frontage/10,000 square-foot minimum acreage in the current GR district, the already more densely developed Mill Village 1 district would have a 50-foot frontage and 5,000 square foot requirement as the bylaw is currently drafted.
 
In the proposed VR district, the dimensions would be more open but somewhat denser than the current GR, dropping the square footage requirement to 9,000 square feet and the minimum lot frontage to 80 feet.
 
The numbers were generated by a survey of what already existed in the various neighborhoods.
 
In addition to setting the rules for a detached accessory dwelling unit, the proposed new rules would create the opportunity to develop multi-unit housing.
 
As drafted, properties in MV1 would be allowed up to six dwelling units in a structure by right. MV2 would be allowed up to four units by right and up to six by special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. VR would be allowed up to three units by special permit from the ZBA. Campus Residence, where many of the properties are owned by Williams College, would be allowed up to six units by right and up to eight by special permit.
 
Those rules, drafted by a Planning Board working group along with Groff, generated most of the discussion at Tuesday's meeting.
 
"It's really hard for me to get behind allowing by-right structural changes in our poorer neighborhoods [MV1 and MV2] and allowing them by special permit in our wealthier neighborhoods," Kapiloff said. "I really don't care whether they're by-right or by special permit, but I feel strongly they should be the same.
 
"Those areas are divided by income. … I don't feel comfortable having a different set of rules for different economic groups. [As currently drafted, the bylaw would say], if you live in a higher income neighborhood, your voice is gets to be heard."
 
Chris Winters noted that the flip side of Kapiloff's argument would be that property owners in the MV1 and MV2 districts would have more rights associated with their land than landowners in the proposed VR district.
 
Kapiloff remained unconvinced and told his colleagues he could not support the bylaw as currently written with what he perceived to be built-in socio-economic distinctions.
 
He also raised practical concerns about the draft bylaw's allowance of up to three dwelling units per structure in the Village Residence district.
 
He suggested that bylaw has a better chance of meeting the two-thirds threshold needed for passage at town meeting if that number was reduced to two dwelling units per structure.
 
"The vast majority of people I've talked to in the last few months, when they hear ‘three units,' they think landlord and investment property, and that's not our vision," Kapiloff said. "I think our vision is to still have owner-occupied homes … and not to have a place where people see it as a monetary investment with tenants coming and going."
 
Amy Jeschawitz, who helped draft the proposed bylaw, agreed.
 

The draft bylaw's dimensional table. Elements in red are proposed changes to the dimensional table in the zoning bylaw.
"We've put a lot of thought into this the last two years," she said. "We're thinking about how we can increase housing for people who want to move to town and also accommodate people who want to downsize and allow seniors to stay in their homes.
 
"That's really how this came about. It has nothing to do with landlords and that. … It's about how to increase what we have in our community because, for 30 years, we haven't allowed it in our zoning. We only allow single-family homes in lots that have existed forever or you have to buy a huge lot. It comes down to: Does our community want to make that change."
 
Kapiloff, who reminded his colleagues that he has lived in Williamstown since he was 3 years old, told them he thought the bylaw had "a 20 percent chance of passing" with three units per structure in the VR district.
 
Susan Puddester told Kapiloff she would rather see bylaw allow up to four units in the VR district because the larger homes there could accommodate more residents.
 
"There are pretty good examples in town of places where it's done this way," Puddester said. "You can't tell if it's a single family or four living there.
 
"Maybe it should be a separate warrant article, but I'd hate to see this go any less than three [units] because it defeats the purpose we've been working toward."
 
Kapiloff said he did not disagree that three is a laudable goal but suggested it is better to take a first step of allowing two units and then, in a few years, when residents see "the world hasn't come to an end," come back and suggest up to three.
 
"My argument is not about the merits of what Williamstown needs for housing," Kapiloff said. "My argument is about what could pass. I'd rather pass something that would literally allow us to double the number of units. … I think the chance of passing three units is very small.
 
"There are a lot more people who would like to build one extra unit. We're satisfying the need of the majority of people we know about right now [by allowing two units]. If it works well, we can go back to town and talk about going from two to three. Make that jump at once, and I think we're spinning our wheels."
 
The Planning Board's next meeting is scheduled for March 6.
 
 
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