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Williamstown Comprehensive Plan Committee Sends Document to Planning Board
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
10:41AM / Monday, November 13, 2023
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee on Tuesday wrapped up its work and sent the completed document to the Planning Board for its approval.
But first, the panel that has spent the last two years focusing on town's next 20 years engaged in one last discussion about how the town should balance economic growth with environmental protection.
The impetus was the committee's review of seven written responses from community members answering a call for final comments on the 64-page plan.
Several of those responses, some quite lengthy, indicated a concern that the proposed plan, titled "Envisioning Williamstown 2035," did not go far enough to signal that the town needs to grow its economic base.
"While the committee identifies some ideas related to potential growth, there are no specific and coherent policy recommendations for growth in town and it's hard to discern from the report, or committee deliberations, whether the committee supports any additional growth in town," wrote Fred Puddester, a member of the town's Finance Committee. "This is a major omission in the report."
Hugh Daley suggested that the committee rewrite the introductory paragraphs of the plan to center the idea that the plan is designed to "help Williamstown grow."
"I would like the committee to confirm that this is a plan focused on growing the tax base," Daley wrote. "We need current and future town management, town boards, and our regulatory infrastructure to interpret the suggestions in this plan under the light of a pro-growth goal."
Puddester said the report places an "inordinate emphasis" on land conservation and agriculture.
Another letter writer, however, complained that the comprehensive plan pays, "very little attention … to strengthening and ensuring a diverse natural resource based economy." That note came from Averill Cook, a member of the town's Agricultural Commission.
Members of the committee said they believe the comprehensive plan takes a balanced approach on the issue of economic growth versus preservation of the natural landscape.
"We do mention growth a number of times in the document," said Stephanie Boyd, who started her tenure on the CPSC as a member of the Planning Board and currently serves on the Select Board. "My sense was that we wanted to balance growth strategically with areas we want to protect."
Justin Adkins agreed.
"If we don't center the environment, there will be no housing," Adkins said. "We're at such a crisis moment — locally, nationally, globally. And I'm really happy that that is the focus we took.
"I also think we might not mention the word 'growth' as much, but in all the 40 references to housing, they're all getting to growth without mentioning that word. … ‘Increase' is a word we use more commonly."
Donald Dubendorf said increasing housing stock is his highest priority and he appreciated the sentiments of the letter writers who pushed the committee in that direction. But Dubendorf acknowledged that it is a balancing act that the town will need to perform in the decades ahead.
"We have work to do on finding that balance between conservation and increasing our housing supply," the retired attorney said. "I, for one, think the relook at zoning bylaw limitations on housing and subdivision control limitations, which are called out, is something very important to do. That's not something we could do here. But there are many barriers to an increase to the housing supply in our existing regulatory scheme."
Dubendorf did use Tuesday's meeting to express his concern that the plan, while still in draft form, could be used as a justification for action that went beyond the intent of the authors.
Citing a recent initiative by the Conservation Commission to draft a wetland protection bylaw to present to town meeting, Dubendorf said that step was premature.
"I want to say how deeply disappointed in the actions of the Conservation Commission," he said. "Shortly after they get their hands on this report, they suggest the language we use to study the consequences of the absence of Con Comm jurisdiction on upland wetlands, they decide to pull out a bylaw that didn't pass at town meeting in 2008 — no study, no discussion, let's just propose an expansion of our jurisdiction.
"There's lots of concern because that's never been mapped, not knowing what that would do to other priorities. They act as if their priorities are absolute, and I find that deeply disturbing. They took action, ignored it and proceeded. They also did that with the Lowry Property. They asserted, 'This is ours,' end of discussion."
Dubendorf said for a town committee to move forward with such a proposal was "overreach" and did not honor the comprehensive plan's intent to call for "study and thoughtful consideration."
"They acted as if their priorities are absolute," he said. "Even my concern for housing in this town is not an absolute value. It can't be. This is a political document."
The steering committee struck a similar tone of competing values when it considered a suggestion in the feedback to prioritize the 78 action items listed in the draft plan's implementation section.
Town planner Andrew Groff, a non-voting advisor to the Planning Board and Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, noted that the action items will be meted out to various town boards and committees and town hall staff who will then act independently to act on the recommendations — or not — in whichever order they choose.
The comprehensive plan, like previous iterations, when it was known as the town's master plan, does not have the force of law. Its only power is persuasion.
Boyd said she did not think it was the steering committee's role to rank the action items in order of importance.
"My list would be different from yours, which would be different from someone else's," Boyd said. "I don't disagree with the comment [on the need for priorities], but I don't think I'm in a position to do the prioritization."
In the end, 13 members of the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee voted unanimously to recommend adoption of the draft plan by the Planning Board, a step that could come as soon as its Nov. 14 meeting.
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