|Williamstown Planning Board Candidates Meet in League of Women Voters Forum|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
01:09AM / Friday, May 22, 2020
|Jennifer Howlett moderates a candidates forum with Alex Carlisle, top right, and Peter Beck.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The two candidates for one seat on the Planning Board found a lot of common ground in a forum held last week.
The main point of agreement: The board needs to do a better job of getting buy-in from the town before taking bylaw amendments to town meeting.
"I think it has been said a number of times that town government needs more public input," said Alex Carslisle, who is running as an incumbent after being elected to fill two years of an unexpired term in 2018. "I encourage people to come to the Select Board meetings, to come to the Planning Board meetings and speak their mind because town input is key to figuring out where we're going and what is likely to get approved.
"So often, six months of effort of the Planning Board has been undone once the idea is rolled out because there was a fundamental problem that the Planning Board had not recognized early enough."
His opponent, newcomer Peter Beck, agreed that community wide input is essential and noted that not everyone can attend evening meetings at Town Hall.
"Other people are just sitting down to dinner with their kids right then," Beck said. "Some people can come to a public forum, and other people have trouble getting there. They have access or mobility issues. I think it's important to have these sorts of things, these coffees where people can drop by Tunnel City and meet with their Planning Board.
"But I think it's important to keep pushing that idea forward and be as open and accessible as you can along different channels. Some people are on Facebook, others aren't. Some people need to be reached face to face, others wouldn't want that at all. I think you need to have as many channels open as possible because that's the only way you're going to reach people."
Carlisle and Beck
each had a chance to reach voters in a virtual candidates forum hosted by the Williamstown chapter of the League of Women Voters. Jennifer Howlett moderated the hour-long discussion, which was telecast on the town's community access channel, WilliNet, and available on its website.
Howlett asked questions submitted by members of the public that covered a wide range of issues that have come before the Planning Board in recent years.
The pair's answers were short on specific changes the successful candidate might propose to the town's bylaws. Each spent more time emphasizing the analytic approach he would take to questions that might come before the board.
An exception was on the subject of light pollution.
Carlisle, who developed a bylaw proposal currently before the board on the subject, called the question "right in my wheelhouse."
"I don't want to get on my soapbox regarding the lighting bylaw, but the short of it is exterior lighting was not very well tuned, meaning it took more light to create greater visibility," Carlisle said. "Now, we are able technically to create more visibility with less light. And the [proposed] bylaws are meant to reflect that change in our technology.
"There have been any number of studies written about light spill and light trespass that affects not only people's health and circadian rhythms but flora and fauna as well. I think this is something we can change relatively easily to the benefit of everyone. Personally, I like seeing the night sky in Williamstown."
Beck agreed. In fact, early on in the forum, he listed "rural spaces" as one of three things that he would like to preserve about the town. And he noted that improved lighting technology allows warmer, yellower light that is less harsh than earlier generations of LED bulbs.
But Beck also talked about a balancing act in regulating exterior lighting.
"I agree we need to have a rural space where you can see the stars," he said. "It's one of the most special things about night time in the town. But you also can't compromise on the safety of the young people who are walking up and down our roads late at night in the downtown area. They need to be safe. They need to be secure. You need to have lights.
"I think there's a best of both worlds we can have in terms of where lights are and what technology we use."
Not surprisingly, the No. 1 topic of the evening was housing, which was mentioned a couple of dozen times by the two candidates and was directly addressed in one of the questions posed by Howlett.
Both candidates agreed that the town needs more housing diversity.
Beck noted that any proposed changes to the zoning bylaw to allow different types of housing need to be made with an eye toward garnering the two-thirds majority needed for passage.
"That means you have to take those concerns seriously, you have to address those concerns seriously," Beck said. "What are people's concerns with affordable housing? Congestion? We'll take that seriously. Is it the aesthetics of the town? We can take that seriously. There are a lot of ways to manage architectural forms There are a lot of ways to manage parking requirements, off-street requirements, that still allow for more affordable housing development.
"Because we need to see more affordable housing development, but we won't get any of it until enough of us agree, and we won't get enough of us to agree until concerns have been listened to, respected and responded to with a smart plan that gets us more affordable housing in this town."
Carlisle picked up on the phrasing of the question, which asked how the Planning Board can "ensure our affordable housing efforts help those in need and are not misdirected to the benefit of wealthy investment interests?"
"This goes into creating a reasonable bylaw," he said. "The devil is always in the details. And what sounds good, opening a door to affordable housing, may not be a good bylaw if all the details aren't attended to. I've already spoken about ADUs and my standpoint on them."
Last spring, Carlisle was in a minority on the Planning Board when it proposed to the town a bylaw amendment designed to allow more accessory dwelling units on residential properties. The town ultimately passed the measure, which Carlisle criticized in one main respect: It did not limit development to owner-occupied properties, a feature that he said would allow absentee landlords to buy single family homes and create up to three rental units on the same lot.
The rest of his answer touched on the subject of "capital A" affordable housing, or subsidized housing, as opposed to the kind of housing that might be facilitated by zoning bylaw changes.
"As of right now, the Planning Board has few options to help develop affordable housing in town," Carlisle said. "We also have the Williamstown Housing Authority and the Affordable Housing Trust and the Select Board is working on different aspects to open up affordable housing options.
"Personally, the affordable housing issue is a complicated one. And I think one aspect of it we need to work a little harder on is not necessarily developing new housing but ensuring that Williamstown is not losing existing housing. That has been a long-term problem. It's one of the reasons why, even though we've had a population decline, we have a housing crisis."
The town election will be held on June 23 at Williamstown Elementary School. Town officials are encouraging voters to apply for a mail-in (absentee) ballot so that as many votes as possible can be collected before election day, limiting the crowds at the polls to prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus.