A guide to the voter: It’s all about zoning
By Tela Zasloff
The Waubeeka Golf Course property, at the southern gateway to Williamstown, is one of the most beautiful sites in the Berkshires. Over 100 years ago, one local historian didn’t restrain himself about this area of mountains and valleys: “Nowhere east of the Rockies or north of the Great Smokies is there a gorge so awful in its geometric majesty and so feminine in its mists and shades, colors and moods.” Since September 2015, Michael Deep, owner of Waubeeka and his lawyer, Stan Parese, have been discussing with the Williamstown Planning Board their proposal to develop the Waubeeka property. Deep is requesting a zoning change to build a hotel there, which has involved much argument both among the Planning Board members themselves and between the Board and Deep, with concerned town citizens joining in. Several times over the months following his September presentation, Deep changed the nature of what he was proposing, moving initially from a small country inn concept on a few acres, to a time-share hotel to be built on up to 40 acres of the 200-acre property.
Also, over these months, Deep did not provide much of the information asked by the Board, on hotel design, potential developers, scale and marketing data. As a result, his seventh meeting with the Planning Board in January resulted in an impasse, with the Board voting 3-2 to table his proposal. In the following two weeks, Deep drew up a Citizen’s Petition, with 20 signatures, proposing the zoning change he wanted, as a warrant at the May 17 Town Meeting. If passed with a 2/3 vote of those present, the zoning change would be granted, the next step being that Deep would take his proposal to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Members of the Planning Board, the Town Manager and the Selectboard have been trying to work out how to amend Deep’s Citizen’s Petition for a zoning change, that would pass at Town Meeting.
So now we’ve arrived at the recent Planning Board meeting, April 12, where arguments among Board members and with Deep and Parese, have continued, focusing on possible amendments to Deep’s Citizen’s Petition proposed by Jason Hoch, Town Manager. The crux of the discussion is this: how to find a balance between two priorities historically familiar to our area–the need to conserve open space and the need to encourage development. The legal process through which such a balance is insured is zoning, which is why all the attention is now focused on Deep’s Citizen’s Petition requesting a zoning change and on which we as a Town will be voting on May 17.
Finding this balance is not a question of our having to choose between conserving open space and promoting development—although some advocates for Deep’s Citizen’s Petition have taken this stance, accusing those questioning Deep’s zoning change request of being anti-development, using the dreaded label NIMBY against those who are close neighbors of Waubeeka, implying they are selfish and unconcerned about the good of the whole town, so have the least right to speak out. This name-calling is not helpful to our voting thoughtfully on the Citizen’s Petition.
Let’s look at Town Manager Hoch’s amendments to the original Petition, now being discussed by The Planning Board. The intention of proposing these new amendments is to give several choices to voters at the May 17 Town Meeting—voters can consider or table Deep’s original petition, or amend it with language from Hoch’s proposal or elsewhere. Hoch’s proposal, drafted with the help of Town Planner Andrew Groff and at least one Planning Board member, changes the description of the development (§70-9.2) from a hotel to a country inn with a public golf course of at least nine holes, and eliminates any mention of time-sharing ownership. “Country inn” is described as “an establishment where overnight transient sleeping accommodations are provided. . .without kitchens [and including]common sitting and dining areas and may include a restaurant open to the general public.” It may further include “limited accessory recreation facilities, e.g., swimming pool or hiking trails,” and areas to accommodate social gatherings. Hoch’s amendment to (§70-7.4, F.(5)) stipulates that all development must preserve the existing golf course and the style and form of the whole Five Corners historic district, and eliminates the right of a developer of a country inn to build single-family homes on the property.
The required dimensions of the country inn (§70-7.4, F.(4)) are: no more than three stories and a maximum height of 40 feet. The total floor area of all the buildings will not exceed 20,000 square feet—but there immediately follows an exception to this limit. As a “conservation bonus”, this amendment allows an up-to-50,000 square feet limit, with the restriction that the floor area square footage exceeding 20,000 require a permanent conservation restriction on a minimum of 67 acres, restricted from development and “transferred to the town or a qualified conservation organization”, allowing only open space recreation, including golf, or agriculture. The amendment further specifies that, for every four acres of land added to the 67-acre conservation restriction, the floor area may increase by 1,000 square feet up to the maximum 50,000.
In the present Planning Board and Town discussion, the most difficult point for finding balance between open space and development is in this “conservation bonus” section of Hoch’s proposal. Note, first of all, that there is no conservation restriction or monitoring at all in the proposed zoning until the total floor area of the buildings exceeds 20,000 square feet. This is contrary to the key concept for the Town, that from the beginning of any new development, business development rights have to be exchanged for open space protection—in building a commercial enterprise, you have to give something back to the town. So at the start of issuing a special permit for new building and development—in one of our Town’s most important open space areas—the Town should be permanently preserving that open space. As the amendment now stands in the Hoch proposal, there is no permanent open space protection provided and the language is open to interpretation and challenge.
For example, as this amendment is presently stated, advocates for even more development on this property can argue for increasing the gross square footage threshold that is buildable before a developer has to place land into conservation restriction, arguing that more building will serve the values of economic development for the Town. But zoning changes are based primarily in conditions and requirements, not in a more general and amorphous discussion of “values”. The basis of all zoning is clear: a town looks at its interests and puts conditions and requirements on land development consistent with them. Unfettered development is not a value supported by zoning anywhere. All property owners have conditions and requirements on their land and all developers have to abide by town requirements.
Which leads to the final and most important question we have to ask ourselves before voting on Deep’s Citizen’s Petition at the May 17 Town Meeting: Is voting at Town Meeting the right way to make zoning changes? Who—someone competent in zoning and planning—has prepared the documents to insure that the proposed zoning change is legal, not subject to challenge, and is consistent with the interests of the Town? It is precisely the Planning Board that has been designated, by State law, as the Town committee charged with that task. Deep’s Citizen’s Petition for zoning change presented at Town Meeting, is a hurried attempt to bypass the Planning Board, get the Special Permit from the Zoning Board, and begin development. But there is no emergency situation here for the Town. The whole question of zoning change in this case, should go back to the Planning Board for careful and deliberate consideration. As of this writing (April 21), the Planning Board has now scheduled an April 28 public hearing on the case. This is reassuring. Let’s all stay tuned.
[See our website greylockindependent.com for Commentary from Town residents on this issue.]