By Harry Montgomery
Williamstown’s great good luck this year is that the run-up to this year’s Town Election May 10 and Town Meeting May 17 has brought a major focus to development issues, and nuanced philosophic differences on how to preserve and better the Village Beautiful. We have an especially strong and competitive field of candidates for two vacancies on the Planning Board. They’re amazing people you’ve come to know, if you didn’t already: Anne Hogeland, Chris Kapiloff, and Bruce MacDonald are running for one two-year slot, and Sarah Gardner and Susan Puddester are running for one five-year slot. All five are qualified, but we must choose one from each group.
One major development issue is Michael Deep’s request for a zoning change to build a hotel at his Waubeeka Golf Links, to be presented as a Warrant at Town Meeting (see lead story). Much less time and attention have been devoted to the College’s plans for closing down the present Williams Inn and building a new hotel at the foot of Spring Street. Like Deep’s proposal, this, too, would require major changes in present zoning, with a big increase in the present business district.
Leaving aside the fate of the Inn we’ve long enjoyed on Field Park, the Spring Street hotel project raises uncertainties at least equal to those at Five Corners in South Williamstown. Looming traffic issues have brought forth a proposal, shelved for now, to push adjacent Walden Street through as a connector to South Street and the Clark Museum. These big proposed zoning changes have generated little evident debate within a Planning Board much concerned about Waubeeka. Approval of an expanded business district around the hotel site came quickly from the Board, three of whose members happen to work for Williams College.
A consideration emerges, to be borne in mind in filling Town offices, especially vacancies on the Planning Board. Williamstowners share the serendipity of tremendous talent and expertise they can draw upon from fellow citizens who happen to work for the College. For planning, it helps greatly to have the competence of an engineer and a Town Manager aiding the process. But, in choosing citizens to help shape the town’s future, we also need independence of judgment and expression, including sensitivity to the parameters within which private entrepreneurs must navigate their initiatives. The neighbors of Waubeeka best know the lay of its land, but we would not rely solely on their views on matters of its business viability, the generation of future tax revenues etc. Recusal of interested parties from planning decisions can help, but is an imperfect option.
Whatever the Waubeeka outcome at the Town Meeting, other major planning issues will be in the offing, many related to the College’s spurt of building. No one should be disqualified by reason of employment—or street address. But let’s be sure that, whatever their affiliations, the candidates we elect to the Planning Board have independence of judgment as well as expertise.