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Williamstown Planners Consider Changing Zoning Proposals
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:33PM / Wednesday, April 04, 2018
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Residents pack the meeting room at Town Hall for Tuesday's Planning Board meeting.


Planning Board members, from left, Chris Winters, Susan Puddester and Chris Kapiloff.
 
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Several dozen residents turned out Tuesday for a standing-room-only meeting of the Planning Board, which indicated its willingness to revise its ambitious proposal to alter residential zoning in the center of town.
 
Planning Board Chairman Chris Kapiloff opened the session by thanking the attendees for cramming into the Town Hall's largest meeting room and saying he was encouraged by the energy in the room. By the end of the three-hour meeting, one member of the board was asking residents to tell the panel the "smallest thing" the town would support.
 
Like the proposed bylaw changes themselves, the discussion was complex and wide-ranging. Not all of the comments were negative, and with a couple of exceptions, people on both sides of the table kept their emotions in check.
 
But as was the case last week when Kapiloff presented the bylaw amendment to the Select Board, the most consistent message was that the proposed zoning changes go too far, too fast.
 
Kapiloff and Planner Amy Jeschawitz reminded the crowd that the ideas do not come out of left field.
 
The current Planning Board has been focused on opening up housing options in the center of town for two years. It was the focus of a community conversation funded by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership and has been talked about repeatedly in the board's meetings, even though the proposed bylaw was not formally presented until this winter.
 
The proposal's roots go back even farther. It seeks to address concerns discussed in the town's 2002 Master Plan, the 2013 Housing Needs Assessment commissioned by the town's Affordable Housing Committee and the 2015 report of the town's ad hoc Economic Development Committee.
 
"I don't think you're being criticized for the lack of a public process in 2016 and 2017," Andrew Hogeland told the Planning Board. "The bus lost its wheels in February and March [2018], when you got down to a proposal and no one knew about it.
 
"The community generally agrees on the basic goals of what you want to do."
 
Hogeland served on 2015's Economic Development Committee and currently is on the Select Board. Four members of the five-person Select Board attended Tuesday's meeting and addressed the planners; the Select Board did not schedule a joint meeting and did not call itself into session.
 
The Select Board has no formal role in drafting or modifying proposed zoning bylaws; it will likely make an advisory vote to town meeting, where changes to the bylaw need a two-thirds "supermajority" for passage.
 
Although the Planning Board has not met since the bylaw changes elicited fierce objections in late March, its individual members have made moves to address some of the concerns raised at the March 26 Select Board meeting.
 
Based on a discussion between Town Planner Andrew Groff and individual members of the Planning Board, the board currently has at least three iterations of key sections on the table: the March 12 version, and "Options A and B" within the section on multifamily development.
 
Both the alternative options would lower the number of allowable dwelling units on a parcel and address some of the equity issues that have been a major sticking point with opponents of the bylaw change.
 
"Any of these new construction projects would be by [special permit] only … nothing by right," Planning Board member Ann McCallum said in describing the option she helped create, labeled Option B on the latest draft. "This would give neighbors a chance to opine on the idea. You can't spring something overnight and surprise your neighbors. We reduced the number of units both in new construction and existing buildings from six to eight down to four at most [with special permit].
 
"The last change … the way Andrew and I wrote it two weeks ago … all the districts would be treated the same."
 
The March 12 draft, which was presented to the Select Board last week, was roundly criticized for a multi-tier approach in which greater density would be allowed in some neighborhoods "by right" and in others by special permit.
 
Robin Lenz of Linden Street told the Planning Board she did not see how the high number of renters in the most densely populated part of town could benefit from increased diversity in what the proposed bylaw creates as a new Mill Village District.
 
"Most of the people living here are not going to have the benefit of selling and building a six-unit building," Lenz said. "The single mothers are going to have to move out.
 
"I think what I'm trying to say is my belief is … Why is this good idea of in-fill housing being put into our neighborhood, which is already the densest neighborhood in town? Why not Haley Village or the Knolls? Why aren't you considering Moorland Street for this 'gift'? Why just Mill Street and Linden Street?"
 
Lenz's comments, which came early in the discussion, were one of a few that generated applause from the crowd, which spilled out into the hallway and saw residents seated on the floor at either end of the meeting table.
 
"I hope the fire chief isn't watching on WilliNet," Kapiloff quipped during his opening remarks.
 
Kapiloff also told the crowd that his first thought on entering Town Hall on Tuesday evening was that he needed to contact officials at Williamstown Elementary School to see if the auditorium or cafeteria are available for the Planning Board's scheduled April 10 meeting.
 
Repeatedly, planners and members of the Select Board mentioned that they were encouraged by the level of public engagement on the proposed zoning changes and hoped that the conversation would continue. In addition to the extensive comments on March 26 and Tuesday night, the board has received, at last count, 19 letters expressing concern about the proposed change — not to mention countless personal interactions between planners and residents and social media posts.
 
One of the letters on file on the town's website is from Carin DeMayo-Wall, a Williamstown native and daughter of two of its best known citizens, Carol DeMayo, who volunteers as coordinator of the town's food pantry among other civic engagements, and the late Richard DeMayo, a longtime member of various boards who served as a trustee on the town's Affordable Housing Trust up until his death in 2015.
 
DeMayo-Wall told the Planning Board in her letter that its bylaw as drafted had no chance of passing town meeting but that its motives in trying to increase housing options were laudable.
 
"I would propose we change our Zoning By-Laws to allow duplexes by right for current or new
construction throughout the entire town, and three and four unit dwellings by special permit only," she wrote. "To start with duplexes by right, we are allowing seniors to remain in their homes, families to have in-law apartments to care for young or aging, and some additional apartments or condominiums available to those that work in our community.
 
"A duplex in this case is 'found housing' that may be underutilized space by a shrinking family or by a family that needs additional income to remain in town. It is an environmentally friendly way to deal with larger homes that may now be harder to sell due to size. It does not change the aesthetics of our community and should not have a negative impact on parking."
 
Planning Board member Chris Winters picked up on the suggestion, at one point proposing that the board bring that simple proposal — applied throughout the General Residence District — to town meeting.
 
Of course, the proposed bylaw developed by the Planning Board would do more than allow increased housing density.
 
Other aspects of the draft bylaw also drew criticism on Tuesday evening.
 
Several residents of the town's Rural Residential 2 District questioned the board's plan to allow for greater density in that district by reducing the number of acres per building lot from 2.5 to 1.5.
 
"If you have 4.5 acres now, you can have one house," Sherwood Guernsey told the planners. "If this passes, you can put three houses on that lot.
 
"From the standpoint of the RR2 District, the proposal is more likely to have a sprawl effect."
 
Guernsey also noted that the change likely would produce a tax hike for residents in the rural district, where properties would be appraised higher whether or not the owner chose to build the additional homes the proposed bylaw would allow.
 
Even before the public comment portion of Tuesday's meeting, Kapiloff said he had reconsidered his position on RR2 because he only recently realized the potential unintended consequence of impacting residents' taxes.
 
The centerpiece of the proposed bylaw, which would enable most of the other changes in the current draft, is the definition of four new zoning districts within General Residence: Mill Village, Village Residence 1, Village Residence 2 and Village Residence 3 as currently labeled.
 
The planners contend that the new districts would recognize the historical character of the specific neighborhoods within the current GR and, more importantly, bring the majority of the properties in the district into compliance with the zoning bylaw.
 
When the town enacted zoning in 1955, the majority of the residences in what is the areas affected by the proposed bylaw were "grandfathered" in as "pre-existing nonconforming" properties.
 
That means the residences can continue to exist as if the zoning bylaw never was adopted — unless and until the owner attempts to make a minor alteration. That creates cumbersome and sometimes insurmountable obstacles for homeowners.
 
Attorney Stanley Parese, addressing the meeting from the floor in defense of this part of the proposed new zones, described a scenario in which someone purchases a home with the mistaken belief he or she can "bump out" the kitchen by a few feet because the neighboring property has the exact same modification. Only after the new homeowner applies to the town for a building permit does he or she realize the neighboring house was one of the "pre-existing nonconformities" and the modification they seek violates the setback rules in GR.
 
The Planning Board spent months looking at the "conditions on the ground" in an effort to draft a bylaw that brings the majority of the residences in the four new districts into compliance with new setback, frontage and lot coverage requirements specific to each of the new zones.
 
Kapiloff said there is a special permit request currently on its way to the Zoning Board of Appeals to request a variance that would not be needed under the proposed bylaw.
 
"There is someone going to the ZBA pretty soon who is doing a renovation in their house," Kapiloff said. "One thing they need is a fire escape, and they can't do it because the fire escape will be too close to the property line. If this [application] gets rejected, they can't remodel their house and make it better. This just encourages landlords to never renovate their properties.
 
"If you're a homeowner, and you own a home for a long time, eventually, you will need to do something in your house."
 
Even in the latter stages of the meeting, however, residents still were questioning the need for new zoning districts with new rules on setbacks and frontage for each. A Maple Street resident asked if instead of creating different zones, the town's bylaw could define different lot sizes that had different dimensional requirements within the same district.
 
Winters called the idea interesting — one of many indications from the Planning Board throughout the meeting that it continues to be open to more input and ideas from the rest of the town.
 
It remains to be seen how many changes the Planning Board will be able to formally incorporate into the three articles it has drafted for May's Annual Town Meeting and whether any, like Article C (reducing the lot requirements in RR2) may fall by the wayside altogether.
 
Several residents, including Parese, encouraged the Planning Board to maintain some of the momentum from the winter and spring and put some version of its plan before the voters at town meeting.
 
Winters agreed and, at the meeting's end, attempted to bring the focus back to the intent of the draft bylaw, as regards the concept of increasing housing diversity.
 
"Who we're not hearing from tonight are the people who are not in the room because they're not yet residents of the town," he said. "And that's the underlying intent. We're trying to see in our mind the people who don't live in our community and want to: the high school and grade school teachers, the policemen, the public works workers, the people who provide our services. Let's keep those people in mind.
 
"Some progress is better than no progress even if it's slow progress. What I'd like to see is: What is the smallest thing we can propose that the town will support. Is there a small enough unit of progress? If the answer is no, then that's a problem. If there is no increment of progress small enough that we're willing to support it, that's a different conversation."
 
The town has set up a website with an FAQ about the zoning proposal that explains more of the rationale for the proposed bylaw. The Planning Board can be reached by email at planningboard@williamstownma.gov.
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