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Williamstown Planners Send Warrant Articles to Select Board
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:29AM / Tuesday, February 21, 2023
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board last week voted to send five zoning bylaw amendments to the Select Board for inclusion on May's annual town meeting warrant.
But residents have at least three more chances to weigh in on the proposals before that warrant is sealed in mid April.
The first chance will come on March 13, when the Planning Board chair and co-chair plan to attend a meeting of the Select Board to explain the proposed warrant articles. The planners then have scheduled an informal "information session" to receive comment from residents on March 14.
Finally, the Planning Board will hold its legally mandated public hearing on the articles on April 11, one day before the warrant is scheduled to go to the publisher in advance of the May 16 town meeting.
Barring any reversals by the board in the next seven weeks, that warrant will include two articles intended to allow more use of manufactured housing, two articles that would allow more multi-unit housing (triplexes and quadplexes) in the General Residence zoning district and one article that would reduce the minimum frontage required for a residential lot in GR.
Two of those topics — multi-unit housing and reduced frontage — grew directly out of a series of bylaw amendment proposals that were referred back to the Planning Board by the 2022 annual town meeting.
Proponents of allowing more multi-unit housing and, as proposed in 2022, more comprehensive reductions in the dimensional requirements for housing lots argued that such moves would address "exclusionary zoning" provisions in the town's 1950s zoning bylaw.
Where last spring's proposals would have reduced frontage, area and setback requirements in all of the town's residential zones, the current bylaw only would apply to GR, already the most densely developed part of town and only would reduce the frontage requirement, from 100 feet to 66 feet.
As for the multi-unit housing articles, they follow the intent of Article 40 on last year's annual town meeting warrant, which would have allowed three- and four-unit homes by right in GR. The difference this time around is that the planners have broken the proposal into two separate articles, currently labeled B1 and B2; the first would allow three-unit homes, and the second would allow four-unit homes.
Last Tuesday, Peter Beck reminded his colleagues that if "B1" (all articles will receive numbers when the full warrant is compiled) fails, the Planning Board should be ready to withdraw B2 with a motion on the floor of the meeting.
Also missing from this year's slate of amendments from the Planning Board is a version of last year's Article 41, which would have allowed three- and four-unit homes in Rural Residence 2 and RR 3 after a review by the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Beck pointed out that the Planning Board might want to return to the question of multi-family homes in the rural residence district in a future year.
"Our current situation is a funny one in RR1 and RR2," Beck said. "Right now, you can have a two-unit home, by right. You can have an eight-unit through 16-unit home with board approval through the major residential development guidelines. And three- through seven-unit homes are a flat no. You can't even ask for permission.
"It's a weird provision. … That's not for this year."
The two bylaw proposals that did not grow out of last year's warrant articles concern mobile homes or manufactured housing.
What is currently labeled Article A1 would clean up antiquated language in the zoning bylaw by replacing the definition of "mobile home" with a new definition for "manufactured/mobile home" that aligns with the current language used by both the town's Department of Health and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Article "A2" is arguably more substantive. It would remove barriers to manufactured homes throughout the town by eliminating current provisions that ban them from all but defined "mobile home park overlay districts." In other words, if passed, the town's zoning bylaw would treat manufactured homes the same as stick-built or site-built homes.
All five of the proposed articles were passed on 4-0 votes at the board's February meeting. The board's newest member, Allison Guess, was unable to attend the session.
Some of the proposals going to May's town meeting likely fall under the provisions of a 2021 state law allowing passage of zoning changes by a simple majority if said changes increase "housing choice." But the planners last week agreed that the moderator should call for a standing vote and record exact voting numbers on each in article in case, ultimately, the Attorney General's Office decides the two-thirds majority threshold was needed.
After spending months developing the proposals, the final discussion before advancing each group of articles was relatively brief.
The lengthier conversations last Tuesday concerned how the board would explain the proposed bylaw amendments in the "frequently asked questions" documents it plans to post on the town's website.
One of the sticking points was how those documents should address a question that residents often bring to the planners, individually or collectively: How will zoning changes impact property values?
"Regardless of our feelings on that question, that's a question people are going to ask: Will it affect my property values? Will it affect my property taxes?" Beck said.
The planners agreed that there are a number of factors that impact those values for individual homeowners, including whether their lot, even if it suddenly has enough frontage for two housing lots, could be subdivided given its topography, proximity to water, etc.
Community Development Director Andrew Groff, who advises the Planning Board, consulted the town's assessor, Chris Lamarre, and said that such issues likely only would come up under a townwide re-evaluation.
"Look at our denser neighborhood here around the elementary school," Groff said. "Most of those homes, although you might find a secondary site on some of those lots, the [existing] home sits in the dead center of the lot, so it's not going to work."
Roger Lawrence renewed his longstanding argument that reducing dimensional requirements in the town's core opens the door to developers buying housing lots, tearing down existing homes and subdividing to build more homes — i.e., if two neighboring lots with 100 feet of frontage each are combined, three lots with a minimum of 66 feet in frontage apiece could result.
Lawrence suggested that the board's FAQ could include a case study and a diagram to show where such redevelopment could occur in town.
The sense of the board was that the possibility of such redevelopment would exist if the proposed change was implemented, and that possibility should be acknowledged in the FAQ but not dwelled upon.
"If we, as a board, think it's a likely outcome, we should include a drawing," Beck said. "If we think it's an unlikely outcome, we can say it's a possibility but not highlight it as though that's what we expect the town to look like."
Ken Kuttner agreed there is no way to know for sure how much, if any, redevelopment could occur.
"I think all we could say [in the FAQ] is this could lead to a lot of consolidation, but ultimately, what drives that is the economics," Kuttner said.
Stephanie Boyd suggested that not all redevelopment would be detrimental.
"A teardown doesn't have to be a negative thing," Boyd said. "It can be neutral or positive."
Groff supported that contention.
"The teardowns we do see in Williamstown, at least in the last several years, are houses that are either way too far gone to save or there's been a couple of instances where houses have been torn down to make way for a large [single-family] estate development," Groff said. "Or they've been in the way of an academic building, but we're not talking about academic buildings [in the proposed bylaw]."
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