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Williamstown Planning Board OKs RFP for Master Plan Consultant
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
02:13AM / Wednesday, July 21, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board last week took a couple of steps forward in developing an updated town master plan.
 
The board approved a draft of a request for proposals to find a consultant to work with the Master Plan Steering Committee and language to describe the task of that committee.
 
The board did fall short of deciding how large that committee will be.
 
One of the Steering Committee's first tasks will be to evaluate the responses town receives to the RFP later this summer and make a recommendation to the town manager, the town's procurement officer.
 
June's annual town meeting OK'd spending up to $100,000 in fiscal 2022 on the Master Plan process. Town Planner Andrew Groff last week advised that more likely will be needed in FY23; 20 years ago, the town spent $130,000 on the process, he said.
 
This week, the town posted a job description for the committee, whose members will be asked to engage in two to three meetings per month for about a year and a half with additional work outside of meetings as required. This week, the board plans to post a form on the town's website for residents interested in serving, or they can email planningboard@williamstownma.gov.
 
The Planning Board appointed two of its own members to serve on the Steering Committee but could not decide on Tuesday how many community members will be joining them in the work.
 
Groff advised the board that the 20-person Steering Committee the town used from 2000 to 2002 might be too large to be productive, Peter Beck told his colleagues on the board. Looking around the commonwealth, he said master plan committees tend to have between 8 and 11 members with some as large as 15.
 
"I haven't found any close to as big as the one we did in 2002," Groff said.
 
Stephanie Boyd supported the idea of going much smaller this time around.
 
"I've spent a number of years managing committees, and when you get over 10, just coordinating a meeting time gets unwieldy," she said in the July 13 meeting telecast on the town's community access television station, WilliNet. "With a smaller group, you can be more nimble."
 
Roger Lawrence disagreed, telling the board that he spoke to one member of the last Master Plan Steering Committee who said the panel's large size was not an issue.
 
"There's a general sentiment of the folks I talked to that it's better to have a large committee," Lawrence said. "You stand a better chance of addressing the issues the community faces. I ended up with 12 as a good number."
 
Boyd responded that whatever the size of the Steering Committee ends up, it will just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to doing the work of studying the various aspects of the master plan, which includes topics ranging from economic development to recreation to housing to municipal finances.
 
"One thing I'd like us to think about is that the Steering Committee is just the Steering Committee," Boyd said. "They're a smaller group of people making sure we're covering all the bases. The size of the Steering Committee doesn't influence the input we'll have from people in town."
 
Planning Board Chair Chris Winters said there is no "magic number" but that he could see the merit in going smaller than the 20-person committee the town used two decades ago.
 
"An advantage of a smaller committee is that every individual's stake in the process becomes much bigger," Winters said. "You're less likely to skip a meeting if you're one of eight instead of one of 19."
 
In the end, the Planning Board decided to peg the Steering Committee's size at "between eight and 12" for now and to revisit the issue after it starts to see the level of community interest in joining the body. Boyd also pointed out that the Planning Board could appoint eight people to the committee to start and add more as the Steering Committee gets into its 18-month process.
 
One order of business that was resolved was the appointment of Boyd and Beck, who helped Groff draft the RFP for the consultant to the Steering Committee as representatives of the Planning Board, which is obligated to produce the Master Plan.
 
Before voting on the two appointments, Lawrence asked if Beck and Boyd could answer a question from him: How do they prioritize the tasks of the Master Plan Steering Committee?
 
"It has to do with something I'm particularly concerned about that we have not paid a lot of attention to as a town, and it's something I'd like to promote," Lawrence said. "That's the issue of home ownership. Home ownership in Williamstown is becoming increasingly difficult, especially for working families.
 
"Do you think it's important, and would you like to make it some sort of a priority in the master plan?"
 
Beck said he thinks housing is an incredibly important issue and noted that Winters asked the board to start thinking about ambitious solutions earlier this summer, apart from the master plan process.
 
"I'd be surprised if the community feedback we get doesn't register the same conclusion you and I and everyone has come to: that it's incredibly important Williamstown becomes an accessible place for people across different income levels, that working families should find a home in Williamstown," Beck said.
 
Boyd concurred that housing is an important issue and maybe even the most important issue facing the town and, by extension, those who write its master plan. But she said she does not see her role on the MPSC as one of pushing a particular solution or agenda.
 
"You're there to gather information about what's going on in the world at large and how it affects Williamstown, to gather input from the community," Boyd said. "The role of the Steering Committee is, in some ways, different from what our personal views are.
 
"When we look at the list of issues, there are a lot of priorities: sustainability, [diversity, equity and inclusion], natural resources. It's hard to say one is more important than the others. We have to work on all of these."
 
In other business, the Planning Board continued a discussion about Winters' suggestion that the town could address the cost of housing by increasing the number of buildable lots through changes in dimensional requirements for homes. The board agreed that for its August meeting it should have an analysis looking at how many building lots might be created through such changes and how they would impact neighborhoods.
 
Groff also informed the board of a recent ruling by the commonwealth's highest court that sustained a local ban on short-term rentals in Lynnfield.
 
"It means that the way we've been interpreting our zoning as having short-term rental as a customary usage to a single-family home may not be correct," Groff said.
 
He recommended that the Planning Board wait and see how other communities react to June's Supreme Judicial Court before taking any actions that might regulate or prohibit short-term rentals.
 
"From my perspective, the pros [of Airbnbs] are … we have a really spiked tourism demand with big events like [Williams College] Alumni Weekend, graduation, the Amherst football game, Solid Sound [at North Adams' Mass MoCA] that drive demand and bring a lot of people into the region," Groff said. "There's no way to build enough hotel rooms to accommodate those surges because they only happen once a year. … But that's a great opportunity for someone who says, 'I don't like being in town for Alumni Weekend. I'm going to take my family out to the Cape, and I'm going to rent my house.'
 
"When it becomes a negative is when you see — and I don't think we've seen this yet in Williamstown … the kind of neighborhoods being taken over by investor units. I think the Cape has had problems with that. Some of the Vermont ski towns have had problems with that. We haven't seen that in Williamstown."
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