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Williamstown Planning Board Chair to Fin Comm: We're Not the 'Enemy'
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:24AM / Wednesday, March 13, 2024
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The chair of the Planning Board last week stopped by a meeting of the Finance Committee to defend the planners' recent activities to promote economic diversity and growth in town.
Peter Beck went to the podium during the public comment period at the end of the Finance Committee's Wednesday meeting after hearing issues before the Planning Board discussed at the last two Fin Comm sessions.
Beck offered to answer any questions the Finance Committee members might have and to bring any concerns the body might have back to his own board.
Town Manager Robert Menicocci advised the Fin Comm to take Beck's public comment but not to engage in any discussion that wasn't warned on the agenda for the Wednesday meeting.
"[The Planning Board] wasn't on the agenda the last two times it was spoken of, so I thought we'd keep the trend going," Beck said. "That's fine."
On Feb. 21, in a meeting where Menicocci gave a presentation on the proposed fiscal year 2025 budget and discussed a lower rate of growth in the tax base than previous years, Finance Committee member Fred Puddester offered some thoughts on factors leading to lower growth.
First, Puddester cited a recent example where neighborhood objections forced a developer to back down from a plan to develop housing on Water Street.
Then he raised an issue that the Planning Board has been discussing, off and on, for two years: a desire by the owner of the Sweetwood Independent Living Community on Cold Spring Road to alter their special permit to allow multi-family housing at the South Williamstown site.
"The local committee that oversees the seniors in there loves the idea," Puddester said, perhaps referring to the Sweetwood residents committee who endorsed a proposed bylaw amendment at the Planning Board's Feb. 13 meeting. "[The owner is] going to allow them to stay there as long as they want. But the Planning Board sent them packing and didn't support changing the special permit. That's a property that used to be worth $8 million. It's now worth $1 million because it's empty. That's almost a year's worth of our growth right there. But we, our citizen government, rejects it.
"So we've met the enemy, and he is us. ... That's the problem. Then the Select Board tells the Finance Committee to keep the tax rate flat while the Planning Board is stopping all growth."
Members of the Planning Board did raise concerns about the most recent proposal from CareOne, the New Jersey company that owns Sweetwood. Namely, they were concerned that the proposal as written would allow for conversion of the property to entirely multi-family housing once the current residents with contracts with CareOne no longer live there — thus not supplementing the assisted living business but, ultimately, replacing it with an apartment building.
The Planning Board did not, at its Feb. 13 meeting, vote on the proposal from CareOne one way or the other; its members did suggest the landowner consider making changes to it. And the Planning Board does not have the final say on whether CareOne's proposal goes to town meeting in May; as a landowner, CareOne has the right to petition the meeting on its own. Any Planning Board vote before town meeting only would be advisory to the May meeting.
At the Feb. 21 Fin Comm meeting, Menicocci tried to temper the discussion about the Planning Board's deliberations.
"[The Planning Board] also would say, the current provider, are they the appropriate provider for that facility?" Menicocci said. "Because [CareOne] doesn't want to provide a continuum [of care], necessarily. So, if you had a provider, a care provider, who really did provide that continuum, that particular site might be more viable.
"So there are arguments to be made."
Puddester stood firm.
"My question is, 'Why do we care?' " he said. "The building is built. Why do we care if it's apartments for Williams faculty or senior living? Why does it matter to the Planning Board. Twenty years ago it was zoned by special permit for that purpose. Things change, folks."
One week later, the Finance Committee read aloud into the record of its meeting an email that claimed to be from a resident concerned about the property value of the Sweetwood property.
Despite repeated requests from Menicocci at the Feb. 28 meeting that the email writer be identified, they were not. And text pasted into the minutes of the Feb. 28 meeting identify the author as "Oblong Road Resident."
Beck last week did not focus on the CareOne petition, which is not a product of the elected body, but instead on what the Planning Board has done to promote growth.
"I would say at the same time the strides the last several boards have made over the last few years and the town has made ... have, contrary to our sometimes reputation, been about as forward thinking as you'll find in any municipality, any of the 351 towns and cities in the commonwealth," Beck said. "We allow [accessory dwelling units] by right. We allow duplexes by right throughout town. We allow triplexes and quads by right throughout all of our sewered area in the General Residence zone. We are proposing a cottage court bylaw that would further add to the stock of what's referred to as "missing middle" housing — not large, subsidized units where there is public funding available to help incentivize developer nor the large-scale single-family, high value homes that our market supports, but everything in the middle, the kind for folks who don't qualify for a subsidy but can't afford a lot of market rate units — a lot of working class professionals.
"That's what we've been working on."
Puddester did not attend the March 6 Planning Board meeting, where the main agenda topic was the town's Department of Public Works budget and capital plan for FY25, the fiscal year that begins on July 1.
Beck invited any of the Finance Committee members to attend a Planning Board meeting and address that body directly and offered to come back any time the Finance Committee did want to put zoning bylaws or the work of the Planning Board on a Fin Comm agenda.
"There are 50 problems to tackle, and we're trying to tackle all of them," Beck said. "There's not going to be a magic bullet, but we're pretty steadfastly working on them and have racked up significant achievements.
"To the extent that is a topic of recent history that often isn't shared or celebrated, that is important for all of us to be aware of and keep pushing for progress in that area. All of that aligns, I think, with what this committee has discussed. But it sounded like there was more disagreement, tension and cross purposes in the last couple of times zoning was brought up than I think is warranted. We're always open to disagreement and always open to more conversation."
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