|Williamstown Planners Decline to Back Dwelling Bylaw Amendment|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
12:35AM / Friday, April 12, 2019
|The Williamstown Planning Board has two articles on May's town meeting warrant — both aimed at opening up housing options in the town.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board on Tuesday discussed projects it wants to take on in preparation for potential articles for the 2020 annual town meeting.
And it once more declined to make changes to the proposals it is putting before next month's 2019 town meeting.
The board looked at possible changes to town zoning that would allow more activity on local farms to promote their economic sustainability and that would address lighting pollution.
But when the chair opened the meeting to comments from the floor, the discussion turned to the detached accessory dwelling unit bylaw the board developed throughout the 2018-19 meeting cycle.
Following up on a comment by Dante Birch at Monday's Select Board meeting
, resident Ann Hogeland asked the planners to consider a friendly amendment to Article 33 on the 34-article warrant.
"I'm requesting that you consider by way of friendly amendment that you not replace 'BA' with 'Yes' in the use schedule," Hogeland said.
That change would mean that instead of allowing detached ADUs "by right" on conforming lots (a "Yes" in the parlance of the zoning bylaw), the proposed zoning amendment would require those structures to receive a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
"There are a lot of issues that have been brought to the Planning Board," Hogeland said, alluding to issues like the proposal — rejected by the board — that homes with ADUs be owner-occupied. "I'm not addressing those. I'm asking you to keep 'BA' in all districts."
Hogeland implied that requiring ZBA approval for the ADUs would generate more support for the proposed bylaw change and make town meeting go more smoothly.
"I think we all share the interest in not having confusion and complication at town meeting," Hogeland said.
She and the board then engaged in a dialogue that previewed what potentially could be the most complicated and contentious debate on the floor of the May 21 town meeting.
Hogeland argued that the ZBA has well established criteria by which to judge the impact of new construction in a residential neighborhood and tools at its disposal — like screening requirements — to mitigate those impacts.
She also told the Planning Board that its "one size fits all" approach to the ADU question is incompatible with the town's current practice.
Planner Chris Winters responded that the bylaw as drafted provides consistency and predictability that is fair to all property owners, who won't have the uncertainty that comes with having to convince the ZBA to allow alterations to their lots.
"In their best form, zoning bylaws are easy to interpret, such that people on either side of an issue know where they stand," Winters said.
Hogeland said it is not "onerous" to go to the Zoning Board and pointed out that the ZBA allows more projects than it rejects.
The planners responded — not for the first time — that a large percentage of the town's residents would need to go to the ZBA because their existing homes do not conform to the bylaw. Much of the town was built before the institution of zoning in the 1950s, and many residences are on lots with insufficient frontage or area or do not meet setback requirements.
Such homes are allowed as "pre-existing non-conformities," but any alteration to the property triggers a review by the ZBA in most instances — including the detached ADUs that are addressed in the current bylaw proposal.
As for the notion that a a detached ADU on a lot should trigger ZBA review, Chair Amy Jeschawitz asked Hogeland whether the same should be true if a resident wants to build a garage or a chicken coop on a conforming lot, and, if not, why should an ADU be different. Winters made roughly the same point, saying homeowners should not need ZBA approval to paint their homes “an unusual color” or install a swimming pool.
Hogeland said there's a difference between a chicken coop and a 1,200 square-foot building capable of being a residence. And she said a garage could actually minimize visual impact to a neighborhood by taking cars out of sight; a second or third dwelling on the same residential lot, on the other hand, would add to traffic.
Hogeland also turned around Winters' argument about consistency, saying that requiring all residents — regardless of whether their homes conform to zoning — to get ZBA approval is more consistent.
"It seems to me unfair that if there's a deviation from the setback line, the ZBA has a say," Hogeland said. "The neighbors don't care about [the setback line] one inch either way. They care about the building.
"The property owner [wishing to add an ADU] can make their case to the ZBA."
Andrew Groff, the town planner and community development director who staffs the Planning Board, said that while it is true the Zoning Board approves most of the requests it receives, the Zoning Board process can be off-putting to people looking to make changes to their property.
Groff said the statistics on ZBA approvals do not reflect the number of people who make inquiries at Town Hall but choose not to apply for a special permit because they don't want to have a showdown with neighbors in a ZBA hearing.
He also advised the board that "by right" housing development is a growing trend in planning circles.
"The American Planning Association is very engaged right now on housing issues," Groff said. "They highly encourage communities when thinking about housing production to appropriately one for by-right production. Subjective permitting is one of the things that stymies production."
No one on the board made a motion that it endorse a potential amendment to made on the floor of town meeting. It did discuss plans to do more outreach to educate voters about the bylaw amendments between now and May 21, including a continuation of its informal conversations — essentially public office hours attended by two members of the board: May 15 from 4 to 5 p.m. at the Log on Spring Street and May 18 from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. at a site to be announced.
Winters, the longest tenured member of the Planning Board and perhaps its strongest proponent of the accessory dwelling unit bylaw amendment, indicated that he expects a robust debate on the topic at town meeting.
"I look forward to that conversation," Winters said. "I hope the town sees the utility of allowing new families, new people to enter the community by use of the ADUs that we have suggested.
"If we cannot, as a town, get behind this very manor change that allows new neighbors to join our community, I don't think we can get behind any change. This is the smallest baby step that we've been talking about for as long as I've lived in the town."
This article updated on Friday morning to correct which Planning Board member likened a detached ADU to other accessory structures, like chicken coops, on a residential lot.