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Williamstown Planning Board Talks Changes to Address Housing Supply
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:29AM / Saturday, July 03, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board last week discussed whether and how the town could implement changes to its zoning bylaws in order to increase the amount of housing stock in town.
 
Chair Chris Winters presented his colleagues at their June meeting with a simple yet ambitious proposal that he characterized as a "straw man" argument to spur discussion for a proposal he would like to see before town meeting as early as May 2022.
 
Winters suggested that one straightforward change that automatically would increase the number of housing lots in town would be to slash the current setback, frontage and lot-size requirements in the bylaw's dimensional table by 33 percent.
 
"What if we took all the numbers in the first five columns of lot area, frontage and setbacks and multiplied them by two-thirds?" Winters posed as a hypothetical. "So our 100 feet of frontage … becomes 66 feet. Ten thousand square feet becomes 6,666 square feet.
 
"We will have effectively increased the buildable supply of land in Williamstown by 50 percent with no cost other than ink, just like in 1950 or '60 or '70, through no cost other than ink, they took away the ability of someone with 66 feet of frontage to build a house. You'd give it back to them."
 
Winters noted that historically, much of the town was laid out using a standard of 66 feet — the rough equivalent of "four rods," an archaic term of measurement. And many homes in town still have that frontage; they were grandfathered in before the advent of zoning in the mid-20th century and continue as "pre-existing non-conformities" in zoning language.
 
"The advantage of cutting the dimensions by two-thirds is it solves a completely separate problem, and that's the problem of non-conforming lots in General Residence," Winters said. "That gives [property owners] rights and value in their property that was literally taken away from them."
 
Non-conformity, for those lots that don't comply to 20th-century zoning norms, creates issues for homeowners on smaller lots if they want to make alterations that would be allowed "by right" on conforming lots.
 
But the main intent of Winters' thought experiment last Tuesday was to address his long-standing criticism of zoning bylaws more generally.
 
"Zoning is the creation of artificial scarcity," Winters said. "Scarcity increases prices."
 
And housing prices are a townwide concern in Williamstown, especially among those who are cognizant of Williamstown's perceived lack of socio-economic diversity.
 
The general principle behind Winters' approach to the issue was well received by his colleagues, though all agreed this was just the start of the conversation.
 
Stephanie Boyd said she would want to know more about the practical impact of the potential changes to the dimensional table, and Town Planner Andrew Groff said the town has GIS data that can assist with that modeling.
 
Roger Lawrence said reducing lot size, setback and frontage requirements only addresses part of the town's housing issue.
 
Lawrence maintained that the town needs to develop a short-term rental bylaw to help ensure that new housing — and existing housing stock — is occupied by full-time residents.
 
"I agree that a short-term rental bylaw could work in conjunction with [Winters' proposal], but there are other solutions as well," Lawrence said. "This is a constructive approach. By itself, I don't think it will solve the problem. But in conjunction with other imaginative solutions, I think it can.
 
"The supply aspect is only one aspect. A successful solution will take supply into account, but there will be other initiatives that combine with that. If you simply increase supply, that will create more buyers, but we have this unusual situation in Williamstown where people can buy enormous amounts of housing in our town and not use it."
 
Winters agreed that the board should look at other issues but said he wants to move forward on the supply question.
 
"I think this is a good idea that needs more good ideas," member Peter Beck said. "But imagine if we only passed [the dimensional table changes]. Would it be worse than where we are today? To me, no, this would be better. It wouldn't be better enough. I'd want more as well. But imagine everything else fails and we only have this, is it better or worse for the town?
 
"I'd want more than this … but if I imagine, as a thought exercise, that this is all we passed, I do think this is better than where we are today."
 
Winters said he wants his fellow board members to go home and "poke holes" in his idea so it can be further tested at the next Planning Board meeting in July. But home made it clear he wants to bring some sort of proposal before Town Meeting voters next May.
 
"The purpose of this was to offer that I think we can make real progress on a housing related issue that gets at the supply question," Winters said. "That is my goal for this year. That is my goal as chair."
 
Another major goal for the Planning Board this summer is to get the steering committee for the town's Master Plan revision up and running. Last week, Groff said that he hopes to have a draft request for proposal for a master plan consultant to present to the board at its July 13 meeting. At last month's annual town meeting, voters approved a $100,000 appropriation in fiscal year 2022 to support the Planning Board's work on the Master Plan.
 
Groff and the board agreed that the housing issue — in particular supporting more housing that serves different income groups — will be a critical component of the Master Plan, which was last updated in 2000.
 
The Master Plan revision process is expected to take up to 18 months once a steering committee is in place later this summer.
 
In the meantime, the board discussed a couple of other potential ideas — along with Winters' dimensional table idea — that the panel might be able to bring to town meeting next year.
 
Groff said the town might want to look into taking advantage of the commonwealth's Smart Growth Overlay Zoning Act to allow mixed-use development and housing density in the Water Street (Route 43) corridor.
 
"It's an overlay district law that says if you create districts in the community that allow housing a certain density and mixed use … as housing is created in that area, the state provides you with incentives to offset the cost like more money for education, utility upgrades and transportation fixes, if necessary," Groff said.
 
Groff also suggested that the board consider bringing back a bylaw amendment that it tabled at the 2019 annual town meeting that would have established standards for long and common driveways in town.
 
The town planner said he would be happy to reconnect with Fire Chief Craig Pedercini, who brought the town the idea to regulate long driveways in rural parts of town to address width and slope issues that make it difficult for emergency vehicles.
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