By Bill Densmore
Williamstown could lose a 32,500-square-foot commercial office building, and gain a 95-room chain hotel, if a $12-million proposal before the Zoning Board of Appeals is approved in mid-January.
A motel owner worried about competition — and neighbors worried about peeping toms, noise and flooding — brought their concerns before the Williamstown Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday as it began considering whether to approve a three-story, 95-room, 53,000-square-foot chain hotel on State Road (Route 2).
“Those hotel rooms are going to be looking into my home,” said abutting neighbor Cathy Johnson.
Experts hired by Navin Shah, of Lenox, who owns four chain hotels in southern Berkshire County and Sturbridge, Mass., presented his $12-million proposal in a two-hour hearing before the board, which set 2 p.m. on Dec. 28 to visit the site, behind the Cumberland Farms where a Grand Union supermarket was once located.
Shah needs a series of special permits for arrangements that would not conform to the town’s zoning bylaw. A hotel is a permitted use in the business district by special permit, although until 2013 the parcel was zoned General Residence. Neighbors greatest concern seemed to be that Zoning Board members felt they were obliged to continue non-conforming aspects of the current 32,500-square-foot office building, even though that building will be razed and the use changed.
“If they are moving and building a new structure, they should be in compliance with new requirements,” testified neighbor Cory V. Campbell.
“This is a significant change of use,” added neighbor David Levine. Levine is a Zoning Board member but stepped off the board for the hotel hearing because of his conflict of interest as a neighbor.
Razing the existing building a constructing a new one “doesn’t necessarily change the use,” observed Andrew Hoar, the ZBA’s chairman.
“Can the board at some point address whether or not a hotel is even an appropriate use for that space?” asked Orchard Lane neighbor Rachel V. Bukanc.
Clapping erupted at one point in the hearing, when Kjell Truedsson, owner of the Maple Terrace Hotel, also on State Road, expressed concern for his livelihood should a 95-room competitor open about 1,000 feet down the road. He said Williamstown now has 406 hotel rooms, nine B&Bs and 100 AirBnBs.
“The marketing of that hotel can only be by taking tourists, school visitors from the smaller operators and I thought that the community we have served for a long time would protect us to some extent from implementing chain hotels in the Village Beautiful,” said Truesdsson, who has owned the Maple Terrace for 20 years. “And I wonder if this forum can address this and I would appreciate hearing something of that.”
“This construction is legal in that zone according to the bylaws,” responded ZBA member Lawrence Wright responded.
“This is the only application before us and it is legal in that zone,” added fellow ZBA member Keith Davis. “That’s what we have to consider.”
A half-dozen residents of the Colonial Village subdivision, which abuts the property to the north, expressed concern that without significant screening, guests in the hotel would have a clear line of sight into windows of their homes, given that the proposed building would be 32-feet tall. They asked the Zoning Board to consider imposing conditions to mitigate their concern, as well as concerns about late-night or odd-hour deliveries or other noise-making activities.
“We realize that any development on this site will not be able to satisfy everybody’s concerns,” testified attorney Stephen Pagnotta in behalf of Shah. Both Pagnotta and neighbors agreed that they had held a cordial meeting a few weeks ago to hear and try to address concerns. He said: “Mr. Shaw’s looking at a Marriott hotel” where rooms would be priced in the same range as The Orchards hotel, down the street. Pagnotta said the the hotel, at projected occupancy levels, would yield $300,000 a year in property taxes and hotel-motel taxes to the town. It would have a breakfast room, but no restaurant.
Shah’s consulting engineer, Vincent Guntlow, described plans for removal and addition of trees and other vegetation, and a screening fence, designed he said to improve address concerns about drainage and sightlines.
Architect Ann K. McCallum said the building would have a brick façade, intended to look like a factory, rather than a typical chain hotel. She said the idea was to harken to Williamstown’s heritage as a town with brick factories and academic buildings. McCallum also described plans for a short hiking and jogging trail in the residentially-zoned rear portion of the property, and removal of some trees to improve mountain views for hotel patrons.
Speaking for a group of Colonial Village neighbors, Alexander G. Davis applauded the “thoughtful and wonderful” commitment of Shah to construct a brick factory-style building. He asked that the Zoning Board made that design and material a condition of an issued permit. “We are not opposed certainly to economic development in our town,” he said.
Davis initiated a discussion with the board and others in the audience about whether there is enough Internet bandwidth to add a 95-room hotel in that section of town without degrading the Internet speeds received by Time/Warner (to become Comcast Spectrum after Dec. 19) residential customers nearby. There was no consensus about whether this would be a problem but the board seemed inclined to consult with other officials about it.
Shah himself did not testify but spoke with this blog writer and made the following points:
- As owner of the Howard Johnson’s Motel in Williamstown from 2003 to 2015, he is familiar with the town’s lodging marketplace. He said he believes a chain-brand hotel will draw lodgers who would otherwise drive to Bennington, Vt., or North Adams.
- He has an option to use the 3.4-acre parcel from its owner, Williamstown Property Trust, along with an adjacent parcel to the rear, zoned residential.
- He said he is considering affiliating the hotel, if built, with the Marriott chain, but has no agreements in place.
To clear the hotel development at its Jan. 19 meeting, the ZBA will have to issue special permits for a hotel which exceeds a floor-area threshold of 20,000 square feet, for alteration of preexisting non-conforming impervious surface coverage, for location of a retention basis in the residential zone, and for some nonconforming parking. Neighbors also asked that the project be required to complete an environmental-impact assessment.