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Williamstown Planners OK Preliminary Habitat Plan
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:30AM / Thursday, May 09, 2024
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board on Tuesday agreed in principle to most of the waivers sought by Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity to build five homes on a Summer Street parcel.
But the planners strongly encouraged the non-profit to continue discussions with neighbors to the would-be subdivision to resolve those residents' concerns about the plan.
The developer and the landowner, the town's Affordable Housing Trust, were before the board for the second time seeking an OK for the preliminary subdivision plan. The goal of the preliminary approval process is to allow developers to have a dialogue with the board and stakeholders to identify issues that may come up if and when NBHFH brings a formal subdivision proposal back to the Planning Board.
Habitat has identified 11 potential waivers from the town's subdivision bylaw that it would need to build five single-family homes and a short access road from Summer Street to the new quarter-acre lots on the 1.75-acre lot the trust purchased in 2015.
Most of the waivers were received positively by the planners in a series of non-binding votes.
One, a request for relief from the requirement for granite or concrete monuments at street intersections, was rejected outright on the advice of the town's public works directors.
Another, a request to use open drainage to manage stormwater, received what amounted to a conditional approval by the board. The planners noted DPW Director Craig Clough's comment that while open drainage, per se, is not an issue for his department, he advised that said rain gardens not be included in the right of way, which would transfer ownership and maintenance of said gardens to the town.
Several residents in the neighborhood around the planned development asked the Planning Board to vote against all of the preliminary approvals in order to send Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity "back to the drawing board. And at least one noted that the abutters have been frustrated by the lack of engagement from the non-profit, which the Affordable Housing Trust urged last month to sit down with the neighbors. 
The Planning Board members instead voted in favor of most of the waivers in order to meet a statutory deadline for an up-or-down vote but reminded the neighborhood and Habitat's representatives in attendance that Tuesday's votes do not bind the board in any way.
Planner Roger Lawrence, who consistently has framed himself as a defender of preserving neighborhood character in town, explained his reasons for not siding with the abutters at this time.
"The residents have petitioned us to deny these waivers, but we've gone ahead and approved most of them, regardless," Lawrence said. "My rationale for doing that is just to move the process forward. I think it's a middle ground, in that the response to the neighbors' concerns can happen as it moves forward.
"But I really want to see it move forward. The Planning Board does not have a mechanism for insisting on the solutions that I think the neighborhood actually has to see. But there's no reason I can't say what I think they are and why they would work. And if both parties hear that, maybe it can jump start that dialogue a little bit."
Lawrence then listed the following changes to the plan that he thinks will make it a successful project: vegetative screening to "visually shield the development from the neighbors"; reducing the number of homes on the site from five to four; preserving a grove of spruce trees on the site; building a project that creates drainage that is better than it is now on the site; and fencing in a proposed detention pond.
"I think if those things happen, it feels as though the thing could be built and we would answer at least some of the concerns of the neighbors, maybe enough of the concerns that it became acceptable," Lawrence said. "I think it's completely understandable that this room is full of people who have concerns right now."
Chair Peter Beck moved that Lawrence's comments be included in the record along with the positive votes on the waivers in the preliminary application.
At one point, though, Beck reminded the neighbors that the principle objection many have raised — that the project "crams" five houses into an existing neighborhood — is not one that the board likely can address.
"The density is allowable," Beck said. "The density is allowable under our regulations and under our bylaws. So I don't see where we can reject waivers for the purpose of denying an allowable feature of the plan.
"We could say that the [turn] radius is too tight for our fire trucks. We could say that our DPW director doesn't like 2-foot curbs on a town street. We could reject any waiver for a reason related to the waiver itself, but not to prohibit an allowed use. This density is allowed.
"[Density] can be a concern. It can be a really legitimate concern. It's not a subdivision concern as a violation of our bylaw."
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