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Williamstown Residents Divided on Calls for Action, Analysis on Zoning Issues
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:09AM / Monday, March 28, 2022
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The debate between those who want action now and those who want continued study played out in front of the Planning Board on last week.
The board held a public hearing on a series of zoning bylaw amendments it is proposing to put before May's annual town meeting.
The plan was to take input on all of the proposed amendments and decide whether to finalize language for the town meeting warrant.
After about three hours of in-person and virtual testimony from residents, the board did not even get to the one article that has generated the most opposition this winter and which split the board itself, advancing on a 3-2 vote a few weeks ago.
In the end, the hearing was continued to the Planning Board's April 12 meeting, but not before the panel struck one of its proposed articles and passed seven more, one of which squeaked through on another 3-2 vote to recommend passage by town meeting.
Left on the table for the April session are three articles currently labeled G, H and I (all articles will be renumbered when they are folded into the final warrant for town meeting).
Of those three, Article G generated the most discussion in the months leading up to Tuesday's public hearing. It would reduce the setback and area requirements for homes in the town's Rural Residence 2 zoning district, a move that proponents say would allow for the creation of more housing stock in that part of town and maintain equity between RR2 and General Residence, where proportionate dimensional changes are proposed in what is now called Article F.
Planning Board Chair Chris Winters, who initiated the conversation about reducing dimensional requirements back in June, has argued that by allowing more housing to be created, the town could allow "the market" to create more housing and, according to the law of supply and demand, the increased supply will put downward pressure on price.
It is the same motive behind other zoning changes the board is proposing: removing barriers to duplexes, easing restrictions on three- and four-family homes and increasing the definition of "multi family developments" in the bylaw from 16 to 24.
The board Tuesday recommended town meeting approve Article F and those other changes on mostly divided votes with Roger Lawrence generally dissenting and Stephanie Boyd joining him in opposing the measure that would encourage three- and four-family dwellings in RR2.
Boyd also was a no vote when the board last month sent Article G to the Select Board for inclusion on the town meeting warrant, and she made a similar argument Tuesday against what the board is now calling Article C2 (after splitting the provision on triplexes and quadplexes into two separate articles).
"It seems we have most of the debate in the rural areas," Boyd told her colleagues before the vote on C2. "We have to be so, so careful about not messing up the sensitive parts of town. … Let's not be pitting affordable housing and diversity against the environment. Those are the three things that really need to work together."
Boyd said the board needs to "do a better job" before bringing forward changes that will impact RR2.
She stopped short of saying the board has to wait until the town completes the comprehensive plan process (a revision to 2002's Master Plan), but many of the residents who have been critical of the board in recent months have advocated just that: taking no action until the town approves a comprehensive plan, currently on track to be drafted in spring 2023.
Several of the residents who spoke at the hearing pushed for more study, up to and including a delay until the comprehensive plan process plays out, a course that would hold off on zoning changes until May 2024 at the earliest.
Some asked the board for more analysis of the impact from the changes it proposes.
"I'd like to ask the board to share any research the board has done on the maximum number of units that could be built and the units you think are likely to be built … in the next decade," Elizabeth Kolbert said. "And what research have you done on the impacts … to the school district and town services."
Bill Moomaw echoed that sentiment.
"Has there been any study, any analysis that increasing [density] in RR2 will increase affordability?" Moomaw asked. "As we just heard, it's not clear either of these changes will create affordability. I'm a supporter of affordability in Williamstown."
At another point, Moomaw, a former member of the Planning Board, said he supports the idea of allowing subdivision of large houses in General Residence, which the board attempted to do when he served.
But, Moomaw said, the Planning Board's current proposals go too far.
"If we're going to be doing a comprehensive plan, why are we rezoning the whole town right now?" he asked. "I think we should wait until we have an overall plan, to do it right. If we do it wrong now, it will make overall planning harder to do right."
Kenneth Kuttner, who ran for the Planning Board last year and has returned nomination papers to be on this year's town election ballot, spoke from the floor a couple of times on Tuesday to oppose various articles the board is advancing this spring.
"On 6,600 square feet, in theory, you could build a four-unit structure on 6,600 square feet," Kuttner said. "What I'm saying is that some communities will say 6,600 feet for a single dwelling and 6,600 times something for a three-unit structure.
"If I can briefly get on my soapbox just to concur with [Kolbert] on the need for – I'm going to sound like a broken record here – the need for research. I keep hearing this statement about, ‘We don't have a crystal ball. We can't possibly predict anything,' which is a total cop out."
"I worked for 15 years setting interest rates for the Federal Reserve. We didn't have a crystal ball, but we damn well did a lot of research and tried to figure out what impact our interest rate changes would have on the economy. ... We did a lot of research to make the best guess we could, and I think the people here have a responsibility to do the same thing."
Kuttner, a professor of economics at Williams College, pointed to studies in cities like Minneapolis and Los Angeles where so-called "upzoning" was found to have no impact on housing stock.
Upzoning is a term of art for zoning changes that promote greater density in a community. It is one tool planners use to address the inequity of "exclusionary zoning," the kind of single-family, large lot zoning that communities like Williamstown adopted starting in the early 20th century.
While academics can – and do – differ about the impact of rolling back exclusionary zoning bylaws, a September 2021 paper by Yale Law professor David Schleicher argues that the consensus among scholars is that, "Land use laws, in both suburbs and downtowns, have made it too hard to build housing in the areas with the most demand, leading to high prices and excluding many possible migrants."
Specifically, Schleicher writes in a footnote that, "There is a regular debate about whether development increases or decreases prices in the immediate vicinity of the building site. In theory, the effect is ambiguous. New development might either include new amenities or attract new richer residents, increasing housing prices nearby, or drive down prices in line with the basic theory of supply and demand by adding to the housing stock. While empirical studies have not reached total consensus, a large majority find that the supply effect dominates, and that new development reduces prices nearby in most contexts."
Several Williamstown residents who spoke at Tuesday's public hearing said the time is now for the town to address exclusionary provisions in the zoning bylaw.
"I would suggest it's crucial for us, as a community, to increase [housing] opportunities throughout town," David Rempell said. "What the final result will be – we can't predict the future. But I can say, from lots of previous experience, that if we are waiting for some study or some person to tell us definitively what will happen from some action, we will never get anything done."
A founding member of the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee agreed.
"We do have data … we have evidence for what kind of development occurs with the zoning we've had since 1974," Andrew Art said in making a case for zoning changes to the Rural Residence 2 district. "Large lots, where large houses are built, which is an exclusionary zone for new housing. In my view, it spoils our community to have a vision of two zones for housing – one that's protected for the economically elite who can afford to build on a 2-½ acre lot.
"We do have evidence that this is what the zoning we have now has produced. It does nothing to incentivize economic diversity in our town in RR2. … While I think your step to increase density modestly in RR2 is inadequate … it's a step, so I would urge you to support it."
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