VERBATIM: Williamstown resident Jamie Bairstow reflects on Deep Waubeeka proposal and conduct of March 12 planning board meeting
Author: Jamie Bairstow
To: Town Manager Jason Hoch, Town Planner Andrew Groff , and to members of the Planning Board, Selectmen, Conservation Commission, Agricultural Commission, and ZBA ...
I've lived in Williamstown for 30 years, and I've watched a lot of municipal meetings -- but I've never seen a meeting like the recent Planning Board Public Hearing, held at the Williamstown Elementary School on Tuesday evening, 15 March 2016. Planning Board Chair A. Jeschawitz made a withering opening statement, an unforgettable Ode to Williamstown,, which set the tone and "framed the debate", as iBerkshires' Stephen Dravis chose to put it.
( VIDEO: http://www.willinet.org/content/planning-board-meeting-31516 )
The Chair of the Planning Board delivered a stunningly myopic and deeply offensive critique of Williamstown, and I could hardly believe my ears. From her perspective, "our streets are filthy", "littered with empty storefronts", "defunct buildings", "defunct restaurants", "overflowing trash bins", "old faded signs", sad little parks, things that need a face lift - "a town whose vitality has waned", making her "sick of it", where she says "nothing happens" and "nobody cares"... and it is the fault of some complacent NIMBYs "who think everything is good, nothing needs to be anything but."
I couldn't tell where this might be going, unless it was a complaint to the DPW. In her capacity as chair, (but not representing the majority opinion), and failing to cite ANY of the various larger forces at work -- economic or otherwise -- she firmly placed the blame for all of our troubles where she thinks it belongs. At the feet of . . . the NIMBYs. It's rather simplistic, but always convenient to blame the mythical NIMBYs -- nobody wants to be one, right?
Her complaint referenced "no new businesses or homes, and only limited non-Williams construction". However, Highland Woods has 40 affordable and subsidized units, and was built in record time. Cable Mills is about to be occupied. PhoTech, snarkily christened "Our Monument", waits in the pipeline for affordable family housing. Are we living in the same town?
She closed with a patronizing lecture on how we all need to make sacrifices. "You want to live on an island? Go find one." She says our Planning Board and selectmen have an "increasing agenda". (is that a conspiracy theory?) And inspirationally . . . "We're better than this.".
What's all this about?
The public hearing began, and all three Planning Board-sponsored bylaws were expeditiously recommended to Town Meeting. Then came the citizens' petition regarding the zoning bylaw amendment for Waubeeka. Things got even weirder. Despite the known fact that the Planning Board could not legally amend the citizens' petition, the chair allowed Mr. Deep and his attorney to put on quite a performance. They've been before the board many times in the past six months, but this time they belatedly tried to bargain with the board, and their presentation was oddly reminiscent of "Let's Make a Deal!". As the meeting wore on, the chair's objectivity wore off even further, to the point where she rudely dismissed a fellow Planning Board member, as if she was a dog at the dinner table. Ouch! That was hard to watch! (Like watching "The Apprentice").
During the discussion, Planning Board member C. Winters opined that his fellow board members were "sending a chilling message" to just about everybody. This was intoned with grave solemnity. It was pointed out to him that "careful consideration doesn't mean a chilling message", but that didn't seem to resonate. Before the meeting was adjourned, he gave a little pep talk to the audience about how their votes matter and they can vote on this citizens' petition at Town Meeting, and ... you know... vote for Planning Board members... It was a grossly transparent appeal to change out the board members he doesn't like.
What is going ON? Scolding and finger-pointing? Trashing the town, the voters, and fellow board members? Pandering for votes and politicking at a public hearing?
Apparently, all of this howling and chest-thumping is an effort to get the Planning Board and the selectmen to recommend passage of the citizens' petition/ zoning bylaw to Town Meeting, so let's look at that.
It was presented to Williamstown by the attorney for a real estate developer. It is not a zoning bylaw amendment forwarded by our elected Planning Board, (as is usually done), but by a citizens' petition with less than 25 signatures. The Planning Board DID try to accommodate Mr. Deep, for several frustrating months. They tried to do their job: careful, sensible, forward-thinking planning. They tried to write a zoning bylaw amendment. They were amenable to the idea of a "country inn" at the site, until the "country inn" turned into a "high-end luxury destination golf resort", with a 40-acre building envelope, and an additional 67 acres of (open space) photovoltaic array.
Mr. Deep, his attorney, and Planning Board member C. Winters have repeatedly insisted that if this bylaw amendment isn't passed this year by Town Meeting, then the project is dead and the golf course is doomed. Failure to recommend would "kill the project". Three members of the Planning Board have asked many times for a defined building envelope, some strong open-space protection, more market specifics -- but no such helpful information was ever forthcoming, and a conservation restriction was a "non-starter". Over a period of four-five months, the rambling verbal-only sales pitch for the project changed and changed, and then changed some more. The drawings and the market report only appeared at the eleventh hour after the Planning Board had finally tabled the matter, and after the citizens' petition had been drafted and presented to the Selectmen. The STR market report could not be viewed by the public or even by the Planning Board in open session -- and was therefore useless from a planning perspective.
Why has there been so much evasion? We've been told that this matter is URGENT, in order to save the golf course. We all want to save the golf course. They ran out the clock on the Planning Board, but then cynically tried to appeal to the voters at the public hearing, and were allowed to do it. They're giving us nothing, and then berating us for our lack of trust. Why have Mr. Deep and his attorney allowed their own apparent lack of candor to jeopardize their own project in this way? Is there something they don't want us to know? This whole thing is very... erratic.
Planning Board member C. Winters has repeatedly stated on the record that his colleagues and the rest of us are "crazy" for wanting to know so much -- but I think it's WAY more crazy to write zoning legislation on the floor of Town Meeting without knowing anything at all.
This citizens' petition represents a dangerous, amorphous piece of spot zoning (overlay district) for our treasured scenic gateway. The open nature of the southern gateway has been maintained for hundreds of years, and it would be irreversibly altered by careless commercial development. Will we be the ones who allow it to be ruined? Or will we insist on sensible, sustainable, reasonably scaled proposals? Two members of the Planning Board appear to be vigorously cheerleading the citizens' petition. In effect, they are ADVOCATING an end run around our democratically elected Planning Board's majority decision to table the matter -- a decision made after six meetings and a site visit. This maneuvering might be technically legal, but is it wise?
Their advertising meme is . . . "This is investment, it's ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT! What's the problem?"
There are many potential problems. The bylaw was put together by an attorney, for a real-estate developer. Now it is being rammed through the process. That's not in our best interests. The scale of what could be allowed, and the lack of any meaningful open-space protection are especially worrisome. The timeshare element of their zoning amendment, with its potential ramifications for Williamstown, is another troubling aspect. It hasn't been discussed much, and appears to be riding piggy-back into Williamstown on this bylaw amendment.
There seems to be a disconnect here, a big one. I'm can't help but wonder . . .do my elected and appointed officials know anything of Mr. Deep's history in the area? His track record? Say we were writing an RFP -- wouldn't we be interested in that? It's part of the planning and decision-making process to assess a developer's track record. We have a fair amount of new blood in town government. To be fair, it's conceivable that -- as relative newcomers -- some of you might not actually KNOW what Mr. Deep's track record actually IS.
Please read this highly informative piece written just six years ago by Scott Stafford of The Berkshire Eagle.
And then this recent article by Stephen Dravis of iBerkshires:
There's much more out there in the public record. It should help to illustrate why the majority on the Planning Board and so many of the community are having serious doubts about allowing a zoning bylaw amendment which would allow commercial development of FORTY ACRES along our scenic gateway.
Reasonable, thinking people are justifiably concerned about what might happen with the Waubeeka property, and yet I have not heard even one NIMBY say that Mr. Deep should be denied a thoughtfully revised zoning plan to allow him a modest "country inn". We want him to do it right. We don't want to carelessly allow a potentially massive luxury destination golf resort project with timeshares -- which can only realistically serve golfers on the days when our New England weather permits golf. We don't want to carelessly allow anything that will be to the detriment of the town, and that is one of the reasons why we have a Planning Board. To make sure that we don't. Most importantly, Williamstown needs to be able to trust a developer -- if we're going to change zoning for him, there has to be a standard.
We should really try to have an orderly conversation about whether residential development would be a better choice for Williamstown (10 lots on 200 acres, by right), but that's a matter for another day.
Let's all calm down and think about the future of the community as a whole, rather than the future of just one aggressive agenda. Economic development is always best served by smart growth, and smart growth is never accomplished "on the fly". Let's go back to the drawing board and do it right, if we're inclined to do it.
Developers and speculators are always looking for opportunities, as all land-owning farmers know. By nature, they see something in every open field, but can hopefully be held to a reasonable, sustainable standard of development with PLANNING AND ZONING. This matter can come back to the Planning Board again, if Mr. Deep so chooses -- that's his decision. The Planning Board has made it clear that it will favorably consider some development in South Williamstown, bearing in mind that it is at the bottom of a river valley, and is cherished by the townspeople. We don't need to panic and take the first (somewhat dubious) offer that comes along.
Can we have civility and respect amongst our elected and appointed officials? Can we strive for open, rational dialogue and objectivity? Can we LISTEN to the concerns of the community, without broadly labeling them as NIMBYs? I think we can. Our boards are supposed to work in our best interests, not the other way around.
I have always found the voters of Williamstown to be informed, intelligent, and discerning. We care about this beautiful place, and we'll fight for it.
We ARE better than this.
175 Blair Road
Williamstown, MA 01267