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Williamstown Planning Board Pulls All Proposed Bylaw Amendments
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
02:31PM / Wednesday, April 11, 2018
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Tuesday's public hearing on residential zoning changes was moved from Town Hall to the elementary school to accommodate the expected large crowd.


Planning Board members Chris Winters and Chris Kapiloff, who encouraged the crowd to stay engaged in the process as the planners take another try at residential zoning. 
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — In a series of unanimous votes spread over a 2 1/2-hour public hearing Tuesday, the Planning Board decided to pull all three of the zoning bylaw amendments it had planned to bring before next month's town meeting.
 
Faced with continued questions and — from some residents — fierce opposition to even a pared down version of the changes it proposed earlier this winter, the board decided to table all three warrant articles and schedule more public hearings throughout the year to continue to gather input from stakeholders in order to craft better bylaws for a future town meeting.
 
Planning Board member Chris Winters closed the board's April 3 meeting by asking attendees to think about what would be "the smallest increment of progress" they would find acceptable.
 
On Tuesday in the Williamstown Elementary School auditorium, he appeared to get his answer: nothing, at least, not right now.
 
The evening began with a motion to remove Article C, which would have changed the building lot size requirements in the town's Rural Residence 2 district, from the town meeting warrant. Planner Ann McCallum moved to strike that article before the board had any substantive discussion on its other proposals, and her colleagues quickly joined her in a 4-0 vote (board member Susan Puddester was out of town).
 
McCallum then pivoted the meeting toward what would consume much of the evening's discussion, the most contentious article on the warrant, labeled Article A, which sought to rezone much of the town's General Residence by creating four new subdistricts and renaming all areas within the zone as GR1, GR2, GR3, GR4 and GR5.
 
"The two people who were working most on this project met with [Town Planner Andrew Groff] and discussed what we should do after the last meeting," McCallum said. "This was the result. It's basically to table all the development issues and go with the rezoning of the areas because that seems like the most useful thing right now and, perhaps, the least controversial."
 
The discussion that followed showed that the rezoning remained very controversial in the minds of many of the residents in attendance.
 
Although the board already had struck all of the language around opening up opportunities for multifamily housing within the GR districts, its plan to create zoning that recognized the way different neighborhoods were developed prior to zoning continued to draw fire.
 
"As I read it, the developmental elements are in [Article A] because they're in the dimensional schedule," said David Langston, the first member of the public to address the board. "They change the setbacks and change the coverage of the lot. … As long as the dimensions are in there as proposed by the board, this is a very bad idea."
 
McCallum tried once again to explain that the proposed bylaw's intent was not to change the setbacks and lot coverage regulations in the affected areas but rather to recognize the setbacks and coverages that already exist and bring more of the town's homes into conformity with the bylaw. Many of the homes in the existing General Residence are only allowed because they were built prior to the town's adoption of zoning in the 1950s.
 
"The bylaw from 1955 overlaid over all our historic neighborhoods one blanket to fit all," McCallum said. "Other towns didn't do it like that. When they started zoning, they did it differently. Their zones reflected what was there.
 
"The [bylaw drafting] subcommittee's idea was to … make the zoning reflect our historical conditions. … It was more an idea to make more conforming lots. People with conforming lots have more rights than people with a nonconforming lot."
 
Groff later explained that while the draft bylaw would have allowed more lot coverage in some districts, full "build out" to the levels allowed in the dimensional table still would be restrained by provisions in the law like the town's wellhead protection district and regulations requiring off-street parking for homes.
 
Hugh Daley defended the idea conforming lots could be increased without jeopardizing the existing character of neighborhoods.
 
"Zoning creates the potential for things to happen, but it doesn't make them happen," said Daley, one of two members of the Select Board to address the hearing from the floor. "Sitting behind the zoning law are all these other restrictions, including the building code itself, which reduce the probability of the kind of development Mr. Langston is talking about from occurring.
 
"The dimensional schedule itself, as an idea, is a concrete advantage to landowners in the district. It confers on them rights that other landowners have because they have a conforming lot."
 
Stephanie Boyd of Waterman Place, who is running for Planning Board in May's town election, said she agrees with the goal of the less ambitious Article A but thought the issue needed more study to ensure that goal was met without unintended consequences.
 
Boyd showed the hearing slides of a buildout analysis that she began on what the proposed bylaw, called GR1, would be if the new dimensional table was adopted, demonstrating how she thought much larger buildings would be permitted than the neighborhood already has.
 
"The only positives [under the draft bylaw] are some of the lots will coming to conformance and some of the houses may," Boyd said. "None of this increasing the amount we can build on the properties helps with meeting the Master Plan goals, and it may have unintended consequences. … Here we have a lot of mysteries because we haven't taken the time to look at the data and see what the consequences are."
 
Boyd ended her remarks by asking those in the room to vote for her on May 8, a sentiment that McCallum, who is stepping down from the Planning Board, echoed later in Tuesday's hearing.
 
Linden Street resident Jane Nichols asked the Planning Board to consider a different fix for nonconforming structures: modeling the bylaw for Williamstown on one that has been adopted in Lenox.
 
Groff said that idea would require more study.
 
"I reached out to Lenox's town planner to find out how the functionality of that language worked, and she expressed many of the same concerns we have with our current bylaw," Groff said. "I wouldn't recommend pushing forward wholesale with what Lenox has. I would recommend the board study our own language around nonconformity."
 
Winters moved to remove Article A from the 2018 annual town meeting warrant.
 
"It's become clear to me that there's very little chance of reaching a solution to this very complex problem the town has been grappling with for 20 years between now and town meeting," he said. "I think this is great that it's energized people to talk about it. I hope they'll remain energized and lend their great brains to creating an action. We've lacked action for 20 years."
 
There also will be no action this year on changing the town's bylaws around major residential development.
 
The draft Article B received little attention in the meetings leading up to Tuesday's. The Planning Board perhaps had assumed its explanatory language was enough to satisfy any concerns. As written in the proposal, the amendments to the bylaw would have altered "the definition of affordable in the Town's inclusionary housing bylaw to conform with current state and federal standards and [modified] the Town's Major Residential Development bylaw to make it clearer to understand and implement."
 
Krista Birch said the bylaw amendments needed more expository language because they were confusing and appeared to be at cross purposes with the town's intentions. Select Board member Andrew Hogeland agreed with her.
 
"If you go forward with Article B, this needs to be spelled out more," he said.
 
McCallum said that the Planning Board has been discussing the existing bylaw's restrictions on major residential development for years.
 
"The problem is that after the major multifamily housing on Stratton Road and Hemlock Brook came about, the people on the Planning Board at the time decided they didn't like it, and they restricted it," she said. "They made it so you needed a huge amount of land and a huge amount of frontage and you can't have townhouses.
 
"It was so restrictive and so punitive to anyone who wanted to do anything in town. … We thought it was time to be more inclusive to allow opportunities for housing for the elderly or whoever. Right now, all you can have is [Chapter 40B development]. Anyone who wants to do market-rate housing doesn't have a chance."
 
Planning Board Chairman Chris Kapiloff said the board's intention with Article B was to allow for housing for generations of Williamstown residents to come. Based on the board's discussion with consultants at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership and feedback from residents that the board gathered during a yearlong analysis of housing needs, the Planning Board concluded that the "missing middle" of housing for younger generations who don't necessarily want a four-bedroom home on a one-acre lot.
 
"Mass Housing Partnership asked, 'What housing do you have that the next generation can afford and want to live in?' " Kapiloff said. "The answer, based on nationwide data, is almost none. Large single-family homes is not where the future of housing is at.
 
"I don't want to bulldoze all single-family homes in town. What we do want is to have some place to, for example, have housing for the younger professors who are coming in to replace the older professors who are retiring."
 
Kapiloff said he has talked to people at the college who tell him that prospective hirees express concern about the lack of small and moderate-sized homes.
 
"This is the reasoning the board used? I am stunned," interjected Langston from the back of the room, one of the few times all evening that an attendee broke the protocol of waiting to address the board from the podium.
 
"We want to look forward to the future to say, 'What is coming?' rather than have the future fall upon us and say, 'We missed the boat. What could we have done?' " Kapiloff said after explaining to Langston that he would not be recognized unless he was at the podium.
 
South Street resident Roger Lawrence expressed several concerns about Article B, including the fact that it would have changed language around the open space tradeoffs that developers can make in order to seek approval for major developments. Currently, the only acceptable gifts are to the town's Conservation Commission. The Planning Board recommended changing the language in the bylaw to allow grants to "a qualified land conservation organization," recognizing that there are other private and public entities experienced in protecting land with conservation restrictions.
 
Lawrence pressed the board to list those organizations in the bylaw. Groff, while naming several examples (Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the commonwealth's Department of Conservation and Recreation), argued against naming the organizations in the bylaw because more agencies could come into being.
 
"There was a time not that long ago when we didn't have the DCR," Groff said. "It was in a different state agency."
 
Planning Board member Amy Jeschawitz ended the discussion of Article B by moving that it, too, be tabled, a motion that was quickly approved on a 4-0 vote.
 
Kapiloff ended the meeting by encouraging the large crowd to stay engaged with the process. Alluding to the fact that Planning Board meetings are generally sparsely attended before a warrant article is on the table, Kapiloff asked his fellow residents to continue to fill the seats and promised to ask the school about using the auditorium to accommodate large crowds.
 
"My feeling is the Planning Board is probably going to come to town meeting at some point after this next town meeting with some zoning changes," Kapiloff said. "If you leave us, then six to eight weeks before the next town meeting, you'll be joining us again. We'd all have more fun if you join us from the beginning."
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