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Williamstown Planners Review 'Cottage Court' Bylaw
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:34AM / Monday, September 18, 2023
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board last week took its first look at some proposed zoning bylaw amendments the panel could bring to town meeting as early as May.
Two of the drafts considered are echoes of a spring 2023 proposal to allow manufactured homes on residential lots.
A third is a new proposal to make possible increased housing density in the town's General Residence district.
Kenneth Kuttner and Roger Lawrence have formed a working group to develop the latter proposal, which would allow a development known as "cottage courts" — small single-family homes grouped together on a parcel around a common area and, often, a common building with amenities, like a laundry room.
The pair have been talking about the concept in Planning Board meetings for months. On Tuesday, they took the next step.
"I think it really is a two-year process," Lawrence told his colleagues. "We do have some meat to present to you tonight. This is the first time we have a bylaw — 16 or 17 months later — that we have something with some real meat to bring to you."
Generally, the other three board members reacted favorably to the bylaw language as presented, though each of the other planners had suggestions about places where the document could be tweaked.
Ben Greenfield, for example, questioned the draft that would have limited the number of homes in a cottage court to 12.
Kuttner said the intent of the cottage courts is to create discrete "pocket neighborhoods."
"It's a question of scale," Lawrence said in a meeting telecast on the town's community access television station, Willinet. "Williamstown is a beautiful town. Ken and I are interpreting our task as creating opportunities for greater density without turning Williamstown into a different place.
"We like it the way it is, but we need more dwelling units. We think this is the way to do it."
The bylaw as drafted would allow the creation of a cottage court on as little as one third of an acre and would require 3,630 square feet of lot area per home, creating the potential for up to 12 units per acre.
It also would permit a limited number of duplexes in a cottage court, provided those two-unit structures are built with one-bedroom units.
The homes themselves would be restricted to a footprint of 800 square feet and a maximum floor space (including a second floor) of 1,200 square feet.
Cory Campbell asked about existing buildings on a parcel and how they might interact with the draft bylaw's proposed limit on the size of the court's "shared use building."
Campbell brought to mind a not dissimilar proposal to build duplexes on a Water Street lot. At one time, the developer was proposing to renovate and create apartments in the existing Grange Hall building at the site, a structure that exceeds the floor space of 800 square feet for a common building in the draft bylaw.
Peter Beck agreed that pre-existing structures should be treated differently and noted that the common building — an option, not a requirement in the bylaw — as described in the draft in the context of the development's overall common area, including open space.
"I would make the built common area a separate section from the open space," Beck said. "I'd say the open space requirement is an open space requirement — separate from that, you can build a common building or have adaptive reuse of an existing structure."
Kuttner and Lawrence agreed to look at reworking that section of the bylaw.
Since cottage courts are predicated on common space (and, perhaps, a common building), they generally have some form of joint ownership, although the homes themselves can be owner occupied.
The draft bylaw included a suggestion that the finished product include a requirement for a "condominium association or homeowners association."
Town Planner Andrew Groff noted that the town cannot regulate the mode of ownership for residences, but he did point Kuttner and Lawrence to an existing section of the zoning bylaw on subdivisions, which requires management of common space, like roads.
"What we can't do is say it has to be all rental or it has to be all ownership," Groff said.
Tuesday's discussion of bylaw proposals began with yet another presentation from Paul Harsch explaining why he believes the town should not permit manufactured homes.
Later in the meeting, Beck showed his colleagues two possible bylaws they could bring to the next town meeting that would advance the manufactured housing concept favored by a majority — but not the needed super majority — of attendees at the last annual town meeting.
Beck's first suggestion would allow the manufactured homes in the General Residence, Southern Gateway and Rural Residence districts provided those homes are built "since 2023," up to the latest federal standards.
Beck's second proposed bylaw would allow manufactured homes by right as accessory dwelling units only in GR, Southern Gateway, RR2 and RR3.
"The modern [2023 or later] one addresses some of the concerns that were raised," Beck said. "[The ADU proposal] addresses the home equity concern, if that's a concern for folks. Because your primary home is still the primary driver of your home equity. This is your ADU, just like your converted shed or your garage.
Beck also offered a third proposed bylaw draft that would combine the two concepts, permitting manufactured homes only as ADUs and only if built in 2023 or later.
"I'm just trying to put in words some of the different things we've bounced around," Beck said. "I framed it. You can go check it out. Reference it to the other parts of the code. See if any of it is attractive to you — if all of them are attractive to you, if none of them are attractive to you. Now, it's in bylaw language that you can get a firmer grip on."
In other business, the Planning Board learned that the owner of the Sweetwood Independent Living Community again asked to postpone a discussion about a proposed zoning bylaw amendment to cover its property. Through its attorney, CareOne had been suggesting the town could hold a special town meeting to address its proposal rather than waiting until the May 2024 gathering.
Lawrence pointed out that with each passing month, the likelihood of a special meeting diminishes and it becomes more likely any bylaw amendment will be dealt with as part of the town's regular calendar.
"Either a rather large number of citizens petitioning the town or the Select Board can call [a special town meeting]," Groff said. "I've explained to them that a special meeting, at least in Williamstown, is not the preferred way of going about this. In other towns, they're more common. We do them exceedingly rarely."
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