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Williamstown Residents Come Out in Force to Oppose Zoning Bylaw
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
03:58AM / Tuesday, March 27, 2018
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A capacity crowd was at the Select Board meeting on Monday to express their displeasure with proposed zoning changes.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — There was no shortage of feedback on proposed zoning bylaw amendments being drafted by the Planning Board at Monday's Select Board meeting, 
 
And all of it was negative.
 
Although the Select Board has no other role in the process than to make a recommendation to town meeting if and when the Planning Board issues a final proposal, several residents Monday asked the Select Board to block the bylaw — or, at the very least, send a strong recommendation that the town not give it the required two-thirds majority at May's annual town meeting.
 
A couple of themes emerged among the 13 people who addressed the Select Board at a standing-room-only meeting: the Planning Board did not take the time to consult the people who would be most affected by the proposed changes, and the changes unfairly target low-income residents by allowing higher density in the most densely populated part of town.
 
"What about those families I rent to down there? Are they forgotten?" Carol DeMayo asked the Select Board. "Are they going to be surprised and get an eight-unit building next door when they're already fighting for parking? Some of the landlords don't provide parking. Some of the landlords don't provide for trash removal, so [non-tenants] come and put their trash in my dumpster.
 
"They are crowded. They are pressed. Why are we moving at that end of town? I'd like to know why other parts of town aren't being asked to take eight units."
 
Among other things, the bylaw drafted by the Planning Board would divide a large chunk of the town's General Residence district into four newly created zones. Those zones would allow varying degrees of density — the number of housing units allowed on a property.
 
In the least restrictive district proposed, Mill Village, up to six units per structure would be allowed by right and up to eight would be allowed by special permit. In the most restrictive district, Village Residence 1, a property owner could seek a special permit to allow up to three units per structure.
 
Maple Street resident Christopher Leyda said he was told by a member of the Planning Board that residents should support the proposed zoning changes because they are "in our rational self-interest."
 
"I submit it's not in my rational self-interest to live in a community that's been segregated by income levels and wherein income levels determine what rights people have," Leyda said, drawing applause from many members of the audience before continuing. "It's not in my interest and the interest of my child that our friends and neighbors on Mill Street will be taken from their homes to build larger apartments.
 
"I would prefer that our Planning Board would allow us to participate in a conversation about our interest."
 
Main Street [Route 2] resident Cynthia Payne said she is concerned the denser development envisioned by the Planning Board opens the door to "slum lords" who would tear down a historic home and build a six-unit apartment house by right — up to eight units with a special permit.
 
Dante Birch addressed the Select Board to pass along a list of more than 100 people who asked that the zoning change be stopped. And he read a letter from Cole Avenue resident Kevin Kennefick, who was out of town on Monday.
 
"Mill Street and Arnold Street have challenges unlike any other in town and deserve the town's attention," Kennefick's letter read. "Thus far, none has been given."
 
Like many of the speakers at Monday's meeting, Kennefick went on to say that the Planning Board's process has not included enough outreach to residents of the neighborhood. Many are single parents or elderly residents who are unable to attend the Planning Board's regular meetings, Kennefick wrote.
 
"A neighborhood meeting would help guide good decisions," he wrote. "I've offered to host a neighborhood meeting … Thus far, we've been ignored."
 
Paul Guillotte, who has addressed the Planning Board in opposition to the change and helped organize neighborhood opposition, argued that denser development in the proposed Mill Village district was "dangerous" and that the idea had not been vetted by the Fire District or the Police Department. He also argued that the infrastructure of neighborhoods on that end of Cole Avenue already are taxed.
 
"Cole Avenue went dark on Jan. 5 in 20-degree weather," Guillotte said. "Since that time, we've had seven brownouts on that street."
 
While most of the objections raised on Monday centered around the proposed Mill Village and Village Residence 2 districts, concerns also were raised about the so-called Village Residence 3 district — primarily the west side of Southworth Street and both sides of that street north of School Street.
 
Planning Board Chairman Chris Kapiloff this month told the Select Board that VR3 would open options for a large landowner in that part of town, Williams College, to create multifamily faculty housing that the college needs.
 
That argument did not sit well with Southworth Street resident Meredith Hoppin, an emerita professor at Williams.
 
"If the college decides to replace existing houses with apartment buildings, but also if it only converts existing houses into student housing or offices, the character of a charming residential street changes dramatically," Meredith Hoppin said.
 
"I fully appreciate that neighborhoods must change … but I am concerned the Planning Board is proposing changes that may only meet transient needs."
 
Another aspect of the draft zoning bylaw caught the eye of Lawrence Wright, an alternate on the town's Zoning Board of Appeals who, several years ago, was one of the people who argued on the floor of town meeting to narrow a proposed zoning bylaw allowing residents to build "mother-in-law apartments." The Planning Board this year is proposing to make that part of the bylaw less restrictive.
 
"It's designed for mother-in-law apartments," Wright said. "It's a great goal. Unfortunately, buildings outlast mothers-in-law. … I fear the way it's going to be used is for Airbnb type things. If my neighbor builds a 20-by-40 foot home 10 feet from my sideline, I'm seriously offended.
 
"This came up at town meeting, and more than half the town voted it down. I'm surprised to see it come up again, but hopefully, we'll decide again it's a lousy idea and vote it down."
 
Maple Street resident and Williams economics professor Ashok Rai did not call the proposed bylaw "lousy," but he spoke for many when he characterized it as "drastic" and not particularly well thought out.
 
"You can imagine these rules … creating a panic and leading to a collapse in housing prices," Rai said. "I wouldn't trust anybody to tell us what would happen to home values under this very drastic change in rules.
 
"With any reform, there are going to be winners and losers, and there's a huge amount of uncertainty in this room. The losers will have invested a considerable amount of their savings on mortgages. You can imagine a panic situation where there's a run on these houses.
 
"One thing I've thought of doing in coming to this meeting is I should put my house up for sale immediately because I want to get ahead of this panic."
 
The Planning Board's next meeting is April 3 at Town Hall. It also has a public hearing scheduled on the proposed bylaw for April 10. The next time the matter likely will come before the Select Board would be at its April 23 meeting, when it will make its recommendations on annual town meeting warrant articles.
 
Town Manager Jason Hoch on Monday recommended again that interested residents submit their comments to the Planning Board by emailing planningboard@williamstownma.gov.
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