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Williamstown Select Board Makes Advisory Votes on Town Meeting Articles
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
01:30AM / Wednesday, April 10, 2019
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Jeffrey Thomas and Anne O'Connor participate in Monday's Select Board meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday recommended passage of all but one of the articles on the warrant for May's annual town meeting.
And the lone exception was an idea about which the board members expressed sympathy and an article whose author agreed likely needs amendment before it goes to a vote.
The board unanimously voted in favor of all the town and school spending articles, which have been reviewed and approved by the town's Finance Committee throughout the winter and spring.
The bottom line of the budget shows an estimated property tax increase of 44 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, a rise of 2.45 percent, Town Manager Jason Hoch told the board on Monday.
That includes a 34.4 percent bump in the town's assessment from the Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School District. That increase of just less than $83,000, to $323,311,reflects a 33 percent increase in enrollment of town residents at McCann Tech, from 15 last year to 20 in the 2019-20 academic year.
Williamstown voters also will be asked at the May 21 town meeting to approve a 2.6 percent increase in the town's assessment from the Mount Greylock Regional School District — from $11.8 million in fiscal 2019 to $12.1 million for FY20. Much of that is because of the state funding formula, which this year changed the relative positions of Williamstown and Lanesborough with regard to each town's minimum local contribution to the middle-high school.
In addition to its unanimous votes on the town and school spending items, the Select Board voted 5-0 what promises to be one of most contentious items to go to town residents at May's meeting: a Planning Board proposal to amend the zoning bylaw with respect to detached accessory dwelling units.
Monday's advisory votes came after the Select Board heard two more appeals from residents who have been consistent critics of the Planning Board's draft bylaw.
Dante Birch, who is running for Planning Board in the May 14 town election, told the Select Board that any new detached ADUs should be allowed only by special permit. Birch said that review by the Zoning Board of Appeals is a right for neighbors to potential projects who do not want to see the character of their neighborhood changed.
Roger Lawrence told the Select Board that the absence of an "owner-occupied" provision in the detached ADU bylaw is a "deal breaker" that should and would prevent the proposed bylaw from getting the two-thirds supermajority it needs to pass at town meeting.
Lawrence implied that the Planning Board had turned a deaf ear to residents like himself who repeatedly argued from the floor of board meetings about the need to require owner occupation for anyone looking to add a second or third dwelling unit on a residential property.
"That's the one thing the audience was pretty universal about throughout the entire winter," Lawrence said. "They don't want outside investors to have the right to come to Williamstown and convert one-family dwellings to three-family dwellings."
A handful of proponents of the "owner-occupied" clause have been the loudest and most consistent contributors from the floor of the Planning Board's meetings; and the issue drove one member of the five-person board to vote against recommending the proposal to town meeting. But at a January, information session at Williamstown Elementary School that drew the largest crowd the planners saw this year, the room was more split with several residents expressing support for the bylaw as drafted.
Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas asked Lawrence whether he thought homeowners are more important to the community than renters.
"What's the problem with more rental units?" Thomas asked. "I think it's a good thing to have  mix of owners and renters.
"Agreed," Lawrence replied. "I'd like us to add renters and not lose full-time homeowners so we get both. I think we can have both of them."
Lawrence also criticized a compromise measure the Planning Board added to the bylaw at its last meeting. Responding to fears expressed by some about "outsiders" tripling the number of dwelling units on a lot, the Planning Board amended its proposal to allow one ADU (internal to the existing home or detached) and a second ADU (i.e., a third dwelling unit) only after five years have passed since the first ADU is created.
"So if one year you made a duplex, you'd have to wait five years to do the detached … or vice versa," Planning Board member Stephanie Boyd said.
Lawrence later said that while his first response to the five-year moratorium was positive, he later decided the "11th hour" change likely will be rejected by the Attorney General's Office (which reviews all bylaws passed town meetings) because Lawrence can't find a precedent for it.
Hoch advised the Select Board that there is no reason to assume the five-year provision won't pass muster.
"Unless Mr. Lawrence has a pipeline to the attorney general that we're not aware of, these [bylaws] have all been vetted by town counsel," Hoch said. "I don't think it's fair to make this assertion unless there is specific knowledge from the speaker having talked to the Attorney General's Office."
Select Board Chair Anne O'Connor used the discussion on the zoning bylaw proposals to remind the audience and anyone watching on the town's community access television station, Willinet, that Town Moderator Adam Filson request that any planned amendments to town meeting articles be submitted in writing, preferably before the meeting begins.
Hoch offered any residents with ideas for amendments to bring them to town hall well before the May 21 meeting so they can be reviewed by staff and town counsel.
"Even if I disagree with the proposed amendment," Hoch said. "There's nothing worse than writing on the fly [at town meeting] and having town counsel sitting there trying to review it. On any article you're thinking to amend, talk to us in advance. We're here to help you with that.
"Even if your article is to get rid of the town manager," Hoch joked. "I may be against it. Or I may be grateful for it."
The other zoning bylaw on the warrant would allow more homeowners to convert single-family homes to two-family homes, eliminating a quirk in the bylaw that allows anyone to buy an existing home, tear it down and build a new duplex by right but prohibits subdivision of the same existing home if the proposed second unit is more than 900 square feet.
That article, which precedes the detached ADU article on the warrant, has the unanimous support of the Planning Board and received a 5-0 advisory vote from the Select Board on Monday.
The Select Board split on several of the warrant articles related to expenditures of Community Preservation Act funds.
Thomas opened the discussion of nine CPA proposals by expressing a general objection to the process, specifically calling out a requests related to the town's Affordable Housing Trust, which is seeking $75,000 to support its own efforts and supporting a $70,000 ask from Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity to build two homes on a Cole Avenue parcel the Trust previously purchased with CPA funds.
"I was disappointed the [Community Preservation Committee] recommended everything that was proposed to it," Thomas said. "I'd like to vote in a way to encourage some examination and consideration of how we use CPA monies.
"I'm a huge supporter of affordable housing. I think there are ways to achieve it, some better than others. I think [the AHT's] Mortgage Assistance Program — I like the spirit of the idea. On the other hand … it's forced philanthropy. And I'm not comfortable with it. Also, it's not increasing the affordable housing stock."
Thomas ended up abstaining on the AHT and Habitat for Humanity articles and a request for funds to repair and preserve the 1753 House on Field Park.
Thomas voted against two articles: a request from the Williamstown Historical Museum for funds to preserve historic documents from the late 18th Century and a request from Hoch to preserve an architectural rendering of a proposed town facility from the 1920s.
The WHM article passed, 4-1. Select Board member Andy Hogeland joined Thomas in voting against the architectural rendering restoration.
Thomas joined his colleagues on unanimous votes in favor of a $200,000 ask from Berkshire Housing Development Corp. to support the creation of affordable housing at 330 Cole Ave. (the former Photech site) and asks from the Friends of Linear Park to support the installation of playground equipment at the park off Water Street and the Hoosic River Watershed Association to support the creation of a trail to link both ends of Linear Park.
Thomas joined in a 4-0-1 vote in favor of a request from the Sand Springs Recreation Center for $34,800 to install a lift that will make the second floor of the center's building handicapped accessible. The center had been awarded funds for the same project at a previous town meeting but did not end up using the appropriation because the amount it asked for was insufficient to complete the project. This year, Sand Springs came back with a firmer estimate of the cost.
O'Connor expressed misgivings about the request for the capital improvement at Sand Springs and abstained from the ultimate vote.
Patton, formerly a member of the Sand Springs board and currently a member of the CPC, defended the request. She argued that opening up the space on the second floor will help make Sand Springs more economically viable.
"Imagine a scenario where you want to book a child's party, and it's really horrible, rainy weather," Patton said. "It's impossible [now] to offer folks a guaranteed contingency plan on that site if that turns out to be the case.
"If we don't want nonprofits to come back to the well and have ‘forced philanthropy' and all those things, this is an effort to shore this place up and create a scenario where they can bring in more revenue. … This, along with everything else, is designed to create more opportunities for revenue to enable them to come back to the town as infrequently as possible."
The Select Board decided Monday not to take an advisory vote on one article on the town meeting warrant: a proposal initiated by citizen's petition to have the select board create an exploratory committee to look at instituting ranked choice voting in the town.
The progressive electoral scheme is seen as a way to encourage more civil dialogue and less partisanship in society, and there is a movement afoot on Beacon Hill to follow Maine's example by implementing the procedure statewide.
One of the article's authors, Alexander Davis, appeared before the board Monday to discuss the issue, and he admitted that the article as written has issues, principally that it calls for the exploratory committee to be made up of people "disposed toward" to the very thing they're supposed to study.
Members of the Select Board expressed support for the idea of looking at ranked choice voting, but given the article's current state — and past expressions by some board members that the body shouldn't make advisory votes on any citizen's petition warrant articles — no vote was taken on Monday.
That said, the Select Board has the option of considering an endorsement of the item, Article 34 on a 34-article warrant, at a later date. Although any advisory vote from the body won't be expressed in the printed warrant at this point, the vote could be reported to residents at the May 21 meeting itself.
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