Williamstown, MA – It only took two meetings of the newly formed Planning Board to re-emerge the old fault lines.
About two hours after its July meeting, the board took up the issue of how to address the many amendments to the bylaws zoning that were “referred to the committee” at the city’s annual meeting in June.
Several members of the five-person board indicated that some articles still merited consideration by the commission and could return to the city meeting in some form with further explanation and analysis.
Roger Lawrence didn’t have it.
“I am frustrated and have a deja vu regarding this conversation,” Lawrence said. “We are looking at the same article and listening to the same rationale that I heard all last winter. I opposed them then and I oppose them now. Voters brought them back to us.”
“We have an obligation not to paraphrase the same and bring it back to the voters, perhaps in the hope that they will fall asleep next time.”
Peter Beck immediately responded to this assertion.
“I don’t think that’s fair to the voters or us,” Beck interjected as Lawrence continued his criticism.
“It is our responsibility to make changes to this and to respond to objections that our voters had to accept these articles as submitted,” Lawrence said. “Voters were saying these need more work, and I agree with our voters.”
“I think we have to be very careful trying to explain what it means to vote at the city meeting,” Boyd said. “I’ve heard from people in my network a different reading of the vote than you’ve heard, Roger.
“It doesn’t mean that either of them is right.”
Another data point the Planning Board could consider is May’s election to Kenneth Kuttner for the open-body seat by a margin of 869-552. Kuttner explained in the campaign that he questioned the articles the planning board was sending to the city meeting.
A month after he was elected to the board, Kuttner made a proposal from the town hall to return the articles to the committee rather than letting it face a vote for or against.
At the July 26 meeting, Kuttner suggested that the board begin reconsidering the proposed changes to the articles by separating the idea of change in the city’s public housing zoning from the change in rural residential areas. Former President Chris Winters, who did not run for re-election in May, initially floated the idea of making changes to all the city’s residential areas – cutting dimensional requirements such as lot size and facade proportionately – so that all residential areas of the city would be treated fairly in an effort to accomplish” to divide”.
Upzoning is a technical term in the planning world that creates opportunities for more dense housing, often to address the impact of more exclusionary bylaws for large zoning written—such as Williamstown—in the 1950s.
Speaking about one of the articles referenced, Article 40, Kuttner said the proposal to allow three- and four-unit homes by right of public residence had not been adequately studied and explained by the Planning Board at its 2021-22 session.
“Think about the scale, think about what it looks like, and think about what it does on a streetscape,” Kuttner said. “I can’t help but think of four storeys in the city. There might be more. Visualizing what it looks like in the Williamstown context would have been more difficult for people. Perhaps we can get a better understanding of what that would look like in our architecture context.”
“We can’t be asked to agree to something we don’t know what it would look like on Earth.”
Lawrence said residents have already thought about allowing four housing units.
“Voters were basically saying that [articles] I need more work, I agree with our constituents. For example, I didn’t hear a discussion last winter, and I don’t hear a discussion now [on the Planning Board] About the idea that four units, throughout the entire public residence area, might lead to large-scale demolitions in Williamstown.
“In principle, we could have four units on a given plot in some areas of Williamstown. I don’t think we should have an overall zoning where we do it everywhere right.”
Cotter suggested that the council could propose bylaws that would increase the number of units allowed in one building in GR (currently two units) to three and try to add a fourth unit a year later. When Beck said the process of adjusting the zoning regulation was so tedious that he’d prefer not to take a gradual approach, Kuttner replied that grading might help, “if you want to increase the likelihood of it going through.”
Kuttner proposed an additional approach similar to Article 45, which would have reduced dimensional requirements (facade, lot size, and obstructions) in the public residence area in an effort to allow more buildable lots to be created.
“[Boyd] “He brought up a number at a meeting that suggested more bang for the buck in terms of interface handling rather than lot size reduction,” Kuttner said. The look and feel of the city…maybe separating the facades from the lot volumes. ”
Kuttner said it’s difficult to make changes in Williamstown (7,700 residents) because its public residence area includes so many different types of neighborhoods. Compare this with Northampton (28,500 residents), where zoning changes were more targeted.
“The question is, do you want Thornliebank [on the west end of GR] “It looks like Mill Village,” said Kuttner. “It might, and it might not. I don’t know. But it’s something you should expect.”
After allowing all board members to re-evaluate the material that was sent back to the committee, Boyd concluded that there was “some enthusiasm” to reconsider dimensional changes in GRs and proposals to amend the three- and four-unit bylaws.
“Let’s assume an openness to discussion,” Kuttner added.
Boyd also noted that the Planning Board has another big item on its plate in the 2022-23 cycle, which is to develop a new comprehensive plan to replace the 2002 master plan. Both Boyd and Beck serve on the comprehensive plan steering committee, many residents who criticized the bylaws amendments said. They specifically felt that the major revisions to the bylaw should wait until the comprehensive plan process is complete.
However, planning board members spent most of the meeting talking about the new initiatives they are working on, some of which may be ready to present to the city meeting as early as May 2023.
Dante Birch is compiling proposals for design elements the board may want to propose for 5G towers so that the city can put in place bylaws when service providers begin applying for their construction.
“Unlike other forms of technology, it has a large bandwidth but a very short distance,” Birch told his colleagues. “One of the things about that is that you have to have more turrets to bounce the signal along.”
Birch suggested that Williamstown could get ahead of the 5G industry by putting an internal regulation on the books to guide development.
“It will probably be some time before we see something like this in the city,” he said. “We’re not exactly the first to get 5G on the list.”
Beck takes the board’s view on two potential changes to the bylaws — both related to housing.
The first is the concept of amending the regulation to allow for the erection of manufactured homes throughout the city. They are currently treated like mobile homes, which are not allowed in the city outside of a distinctive overlay that enables Pines Lodge Mobile Home Park off Henderson Road.
Beck noted that the Williamstown disallowance of mobile homes predates a 1980 change in federal law that subjects manufactured homes to strict safety certification standards. He presented evidence showing how affordable manufactured homes can be compared to “stick-built” housing.
One of the articles of the Planning Board that passed overwhelmingly at the city’s annual June meeting was Article 38, which amended the purpose of the zoning bylaw to include promotion, ”
An affordable mix of housing types.”
The second proposal that Beck is looking at is for Williamstown to join Great Barrington and North Adams in implementing local controls on short-term rentals. Among the options on the table are restrictions on the number of nights a year accommodations can be available on sites like Airbnb and Vrbo in order to prevent potential year-round homes from becoming actual hotels. Other options might include regulations that limit the city’s part-time residents’ ability to operate short-term rentals, a move that would discourage “out-of-town investors” from devouring the housing stock.
Beck said his research has found that there are 90 short-term rentals in Williamstown that are registered with the state but typically 100 to 150 active short-term rentals in the most popular locations. This discrepancy does not necessarily indicate a high non-compliance with state law; Under Massachusetts law, only homes that rent for 12 nights or more per year need to be registered, and some housing may only be available for traffic events such as the Williams College commencement or the Solid Sound Festival at Mass MoCA.
About 4 percent of the city’s housing stock is currently available as short-term rentals, Beck said.
Two members of the Planning Board, Lawrence and Kuttner, are dedicating their time this year to researching innovative solutions to the city’s achievable housing shortage that go beyond last year’s zoning regulation reform initiatives.
At the July meeting, they raised a number of potential steps the city could take, from zoning changes such as creating superimposed zones and allowing manufactured homes to non-zoning solutions such as city-funded workforce housing and property tax credits for homes valued lower. From the average rating in the city.
Beck suggested that the Planning Board schedule a joint meeting with the Select Board to discuss some ideas, such as tax breaks, that would address the housing issue but fall outside the Planning Board’s purview.
Tags: planning board,