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Williamstown Neighbors Not Satisfied with Habitat Response
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:22AM / Wednesday, May 22, 2024
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A Summer Street resident last week said that if Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity cannot find a compromise with neighbors of a planned subdivision, the town should find a different developer for the parcel.
But members of the Affordable Housing Trust board expressed doubt that the town could find a different developer that relies on cash donations and volunteer labor to build single-family homes that are affordable to residents making up to 60 percent of the area median income.
The topic came up during a Wednesday report to the board from three members who met with the board of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter about its plans to build homes on a Summer Street lot the trustees purchased in 2015.
Christopher Bolton joined several residents who live near the planned subdivision in saying that Habitat has been unresponsive to the concerns raised by those neighbors.
"I have to say, if Habitat is not willing to have two-way conversation with some flexibility on both sides — because I think the project asked the neighbors to be very flexible and very patient and make a lot of allowances on a lot of things … If Habitat is not willing to have that conversation, I think the neighbors would like to have that conversation with the Affordable Housing Trust," Bolton said.
"Honestly, maybe explore if there's not a developer who could execute this project in a different way that might be better for everybody. It might not tie up Habitat for years. It might go better for the neighbors to enable a more flexible plan."
Daniel Gura, a member of the town board since 2020 and the managing director of Habitat Mortgage Solutions, noted that other developers would find it difficult to build and sell homes using Habitat for Humanity's model.
"From a pure financial standpoint, you're not going to be able to find a developer who can build affordable housing at [that] scale," Gura said. "The math is just horrendous to say the least.
"You can find someone to build a house, but you're not going to house a resident at 80 percent of area median income."
Board member Thomas Sheldon, who was the chair when the trustees first partnered with Northern Berkshire Habitat to build two homes at the corner of Cole Avenue and Maple Street, noted that the local non-profit was the only respondent to a request for the proposals the board issued for development of both the Cole Avenue and Summer Street parcels.
At the time the trustees accepted the proposal from Northern Berkshire Habitat, they stressed the need to make any developments fit in with existing neighborhoods.
"[A conversation between the trustees and Northern Berkshire Habitat] doesn't obviate the need for the neighbors to have their own comfort level with the project," Sheldon told representatives from the non-profit in 2017. "They need an opportunity to hear from you and ask questions."
Seven months later, after residents of the Cole/Maple neighborhood objected to Northern Berkshire Habitat's plan to build three homes on the corner property, the AHT Board voted to tell the developer to scale back to two homes, which ultimately were built.
"In our [request for proposals] as a trust, which predated in any formal way Habitat's response … we explicitly, as part of our criteria, set forth that we wanted density on the site while being sensitive to the neighborhood," then-board member Stan Parese said at the time.
Residents of the Summer Street lot neighborhood have expressed frustration with the willingness of Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity to come to the table.
"I think flexibility in this process, especially if the goal is to rapidly increase access to housing in town, I think it's going to require some flexible thinking, not just on the part of the residents of Summer Street," Summer Street resident Myles Evans told the trustees. "I think it's going to require flexible thinking all around."
Current board Chair Andrew Hogeland and two other members of the board met with the board of Habitat for Humanity after the Planning Board gave preliminary approvals for the project earlier this month.
"[A] main topic of concern to the neighbors was the scale of the project," Hogeland said. "They objected to the five single-family houses. The consensus of the meeting last Wednesday [with the NBHFH Board] was that Habitat should take a serious look at reducing the project to four houses. Zoning would allow five houses, but, per the neighbors' concerns, we felt this was worth looking into.
"Looking at a four-house plan might also allow more flexibility in addressing two other neighbor concerns: namely by allowing more room for a rain garden location if more room was needed, and it also possibly could allow repositioning the houses so, perhaps, some of the existing trees might be preserved."
At the May 15 Affordable Housing Trust meeting, Habitat project manager Keith Davis confirmed that the non-profit has scaled back its plan to four homes at the Summer Street site, as he indicated it might do at a community forum the developer hosted in March.
Hogeland said that, with some members of the neighborhood attending the virtual meeting, he hoped to get some feedback on Wednesday night about whether four houses was an acceptable compromise.
Kayla Falkowski, who lives at the corner of Hoosac Street and Summer Street and whose property abuts the AHT's property, said it was not.
"In response to the four homes, we would prefer three," Falkowski wrote in the Zoom meeting's comments section in a note read aloud by Hogeland. "It would shorten construction time and cost and ease the impact on the land."
Davis said scaling back to three homes would not work for Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, explaining, not for the first time, that building fewer homes means making each home more expensive.
Because the L-shaped lot only has enough frontage on Summer Street for one residence under the zoning bylaw, Habitat's plan has been to construct a short road off Summer Street with individual housing lots that each have frontage on the new road. The cost of the road needs to be spread among the resulting homes, Davis explained. Building fewer homes adds to the "road cost" per residence.
Davis also expressed a preference to subdivide the town-owned lot in a manner in keeping with the existing neighborhood.
"It's 1.75 acres," Davis said, referring to the size of the town-owned lot. "If you're building three houses there, each house has more than double the land area of most of the houses on Summer and May Streets. Most of the houses on Summer and May Streets are 0.21 acres. If you look at the property maps on the town website, there are some lots that are a third of an acre, but these would still be more than that.
"So you're talking about affordable houses that have bigger lots than most of the homeowners in the area. That just doesn't seem practical to me."
May Street runs parallel to North Hoosac Road, intersecting Summer Street to the north of the trust's property.
As for the frontage requirement that makes four homes more practical than three, Bolton suggested that Northern Berkshire Habitat could get around the zoning regulation by applying for an exemption under Chapter 40B, a provision in state law that gives relief from local zoning for projects that include affordable housing.
Davis said he did not know for sure that Chapter 40B would be a way around the problem but indicated that process was more time-consuming than the path Habitat has chosen.
"Chapter 40B would delay us for a year, minimum," Davis said. "That's something I'm not prepared to do."
Davis did not mention at Wednesday's meeting that Chapter 40B developments in the commonwealth frequently are the targets of costly litigation that stall or kill such projects. As recently as last year, the threat of legal action caused a developer to walk away from a proposed housing development on Water Street in Williamstown.
An April meeting of the Affordable Housing Trust Board, Bolton himself referenced neighbors who, "resorted to adversarial legal processes," to block developments.
Hogeland indicated a willingness to continue what he called "shuttle diplomacy" between residents of the Summer and May Street neighborhood and Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity. But he and other members of the board encouraged the non-profit to speak directly to neighbors expressing concerns about the subdivision.
It appeared at Wednesday's meeting that the neighbors and Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity may have some common ground — just not in a particularly amicable sense.
In response to a suggestion from a meeting participant that the non-profit could build two duplexes at the site to house four families with less impact on the neighborhood, Davis explained why duplexes do not work with the non-profit's model and indicated such a demand from the trustees would be a deal-breaker.
"I would point out, again, that Habitat is not in the business of building duplexes," Davis said. "We'd walk away from the project, and you'd have to find another developer."
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