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Williamstown Planners Still Split on Upzoning Proposals
By Stephen Dravis,
02:53PM / Saturday, August 06, 2022
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. – It took just two meetings of the newly constituted Planning Board for old fault lines to reemerge.
 
About two hours into its July meeting, the board took up the question of how to address the numerous zoning bylaw amendments that were "referred to committee" by June’s annual town meeting.
 
Several members of the five-person board indicated that some of the articles still merited consideration by the body and could return to town meeting in some form and with further explanation and analysis.
 
Roger Lawrence was not having it.
 
"I feel discouraged and got a sense of deja vu concerning this conversation," Lawrence said. "We’re looking at the same article and hearing the same rationales for it I heard all last winter. I opposed them then and oppose them now. They’ve been sent back to us by the voters.
 
"We have an obligation not to reformulate the same thing and send it back to the voters, maybe with the hope that they’re asleep next time."
 
Peter Beck immediately pushed back at that assertion.
 
"I don’t think that’s remotely fair to the voters or to us," Beck interjected as Lawrence continued his critique.
 
"It’s our responsibility to make changes to this and to respond to the objections our voters had to accepting these articles as presented," Lawrence said. "Voters were essentially saying these need more work, and I agree with our voters."
 
Chair Stephanie Boyd cautioned that the board could interpret a 181-68 vote to refer to committee a number of different ways.
 
"I think we have to be very careful in trying to interpret what the vote meant at town meeting," Boyd said. "I heard from people in my network a different reading of the vote than you heard, Roger.
 
"That doesn’t mean either is right."
 
Another data point the Planning Board can consider is May’s election of Kenneth Kuttner to the one open seat on the body by a margin of 869-552. Kuttner made it clear in the campaign that he questioned the articles the Planning Board was sending to town meeting.
 
And a month after his election to the board, Kuttner made the motion from the floor of the town meeting to send the articles back to committee rather than letting them face an up or down vote.
 
At the July 26 meeting, Kuttner suggested that the board should start its reconsideration of the articles’ proposed changes by separating the idea of change in the town’s General Residence zoning district from change in the Rural Residential zones. Former chair Chris Winters, who did not run for re-election in May, initially pitched the idea of making changes to all the town’s residential zones – cutting dimensional requirements like lot size and frontage proportionately – so that all of the town’s residential areas would be treated fairly in an effort to accomplish "upzoning."
 
Upzoning is a term of art in the planning world that creates opportunities for more dense housing, often to address the impact of more exclusionary, large-lot zoning bylaws written – like Williamstown’s – in the 1950s.
 
Talking about one of the articles that was referred back, Article 40, Kuttner said that the proposal to allow three- and four-unit homes by right in General Residence was not adequately studied and explained by the Planning Board in its 2021-22 cycle.
 
"Think about the scale, think about what it looks like, think about what that does to the streetscape," Kuttner said. "I can only think of maybe one fourplex in town. Maybe there are more. Visualizing what that looks like in the context of Williamstown was harder for people to do. Maybe we could have a better understanding of what that would look like in our architectural context.
 
"We can’t be asked to approve something where we don’t know what that will look like on the ground."
 
Lawrence said residents had already weighed in on the question of allowing four-unit residences.
 
"Voters were essentially saying these [articles] need more work, and I agree with our voters," he said. "For example, I did not hear any discussion last winter, nor am I hearing discussion now [on the Planning Board] about the notion that four units, by right throughout the entire General Residence District might lead to extensive teardowns in Williamstown.
 
"In principle, we can have four units on a given lot in some areas of Williamstown. I don’t think we should have blanket zoning where we do it everywhere by right."
 
Kutter suggested that the board could propose a bylaw that increases the number of units allowable in a single building in GR (currently two) to three and try to add a fourth in a subsequent year. When Beck Boyd said that the zoning bylaw amendment process is so arduous that he prefers not to take an incremental approach, Kuttner replied that incrementalism might help, "if you want to increase the likelihood that it passes."
 
Kuttner proposed a similarly incremental approach to Article 45, which would have slashed the dimensional requirements (frontage, lot size and setbacks) in the General Residence district in an effort to allow for the creation of more buildable lots.
 
"[Boyd] threw out a number at a meeting that suggested more bang for the buck in terms of addressing frontage as opposed to reducing lot size," Kuttner said. "If we want to think of something slightly more modest where we’re less likely to affect the look and feel of the town … maybe decouple frontages from lot sizes."
 
Kuttner said it is difficult to make changes in Williamstown (population 7,700) because its General Residence district encompasses many different neighborhood types. He contrasted that with Northampton (population 28,500), where zoning changes were more targeted.
 
"The question is, do you want Thornliebank [on the west end of GR] looking like Mill Village," Kuttner said. "Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. I don’t know. But that’s one thing you would have to anticipate."
 
The last time the Planning Board attempted a comprehensive change to the zoning bylaw, in 2018, it attempted to break up GR into five different districts based on how different areas have been developed. Part of the criticism at the time was that the Mill Village neighborhood was being singled out for denser development.
 
The Planning Board ultimately pulled its proposed warrant articles prior to the 2018 annual town meeting after receiving largely unfavorable feedback at a public hearing.
 
After allowing all the board members to reassess the articles that were sent back to the panel, Boyd concluded that there was "some enthusiasm" for reconsidering the dimensional changes in GR and the three- and four-unit bylaw amendment proposals.
 
"Let’s say an openness to discussion," Kuttner added.
 
Boyd also pointed out that the Planning Board has another large item on its plate in the 2022-23 cycle, the development of a new Comprehensive Plan to replace 2002’s Master Plan. Boyd and Beck each serve on the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, and many of the residents who criticized the bylaw amendments proposed for the 2022 annual town meeting specifically said they felt major revisions to the bylaw should wait until after the Comprehensive Plan process plays out.
 
That said, the Planning Board members spent much of the meeting talking about new initiatives they are working on, some of which could be ready to bring to town meeting as early as May 2023.
 
Dante Birch is working on pulling together proposals for design elements that the board may want to suggest for 5G towers so the town can have a bylaw in place when providers start applying to build them.
 
"Unlike other forms of technology, it has a great bandwidth but has a very short distance," Birch told his colleagues. "One of the things about it is you have to have more frequency of towers to bounce the signal along."
 
Birch suggested that Williamstown can get ahead of the 5G industry by putting a bylaw on the books to guide the development.
 
"It probably will be a little while before we see something like this in town," he said. "We’re not exactly first on the list to get 5G."
 
Beck is taking the point for the board on two potential bylaw changes – both related to housing.
 
The first is a concept of amending the bylaw to allow the erection of manufactured homes throughout the town. They currently are treated the same as mobile homes, which are not allowed in town outside of an overlay distinct that enables the Pines Lodge Mobile Home Park off Henderson Road.
 
Beck noted the Williamstown bylaw disallowing mobile homes predates a 1980 change in federal law that subjects manufactured homes to strict safety certification standards. And he provided evidence showing how much more affordable manufactured homes can be compared to "stick built" housing.
 
One Planning Board article that did pass overwhelmingly at June’s annual town meeting was Article 38, which amended the purpose of the zoning bylaw to include promoting, "a diverse and
affordable mix of housing types."
 
The second proposal that Beck is researching would see Williamstown join Great Barrington and North Adams in implementing local controls on short-term rentals. Among the options on the table are limits on the number of nights per year that a residence could be available on sites like Airbnb and Vrbo in order to keep potential year-round homes from becoming de facto hotels. Other options would include bylaws that limit the ability of non-full-time residents of the town to run short-term rentals, a step that would discourage "out of town investors" from gobbling up housing stock.
 
Beck said that his research found there are 90 short-term rentals in Williamstown that are registered with the state but typically 100 to 150 active short-term rentals on the most popular sites. That discrepancy does not necessarily indicate high non-compliance with state statute; under Massachusetts law, only homes that rent for 12 nights or more per year need to register, and some residences may only be available for high-traffic events like Williams College’s commencement or the Solid Sound festival at Mass MoCA.
 
Beck said about 4 percent of the town’s housing stock currently is available as short-term rentals.
 
Two members of the Planning Board, Lawrence and Kuttner, are devoting their time this year to looking at innovative solutions to the lack of attainable housing in town that go beyond last year’s zoning bylaw amendment initiatives.
 
At July’s meeting, they raised a number of potential steps the town could take, ranging from zoning changes like the creation of overlay districts and allowing manufactured homes to non-zoning solutions like town-funded workforce housing and property tax breaks for homes assessed at less than the median assessment in town.
 
Beck suggested the Planning Board schedule a joint meeting with the Select Board to discuss some of the ideas, like tax breaks, that would address the housing question but fall outside the Planning Board’s purview.
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