May 13, 2016
To the Williamstown Community,
It comes down to uncertainty.
When we don't quite know how the future will unfold and we need to make a decision that will have long term impacts, we inevitably seek advice from trusted friends and colleagues; we read published materials; we attend meetings; we gather evidence; we reflect on our experiences and knowledge; we talk in a effort to understand the potential implications of the uncertainty.
Today, the issue at hand is what to do with the proposed rezoning of the Waubeeka property. As a community, we have a lot of common ground.
• We would like to have a viable golf course.
• We would like to see some economic growth.
• We would like to shore up the Town's coffers with additional tax revenue.
• We would like to maintain our open space and unparalleled natural beauty.
• We need a 2/3 vote at Town Meeting to revise the current zoning plan.
• And we need a zoning plan that allows for enough flexibility for a profitable development.
But the route to getting there isn't clear. We fear that if we make the zoning by-law too restrictive the developer will flee, and perhaps worse, we will send a message to others considering Williamstown as a base for business that they are not welcome. We fear that if we make the zoning plan too loose, a monstrosity will be created that will damage the natural environment we value and negatively impact our existing businesses.
For months, our town's elected bodies have been discussing and negotiating with the current property owner of Waubeeka to determine if we can find a way to rezone the property from a single family home zone (with the golf course grandfathered in) to one that would allow for commercial development. We've made progress. The developer has conceded a conservation restriction, albeit with strings attached, and has defined some boundaries around the scope of the potential future development.
It is important that we understand the implications of this proposal if we are to make an informed decision on Tuesday. Do we adopt Deep's revised Citizen's Petition as is? Do we amend it at Town Meeting? Do we defer our decision so we can reduce some of the uncertainty?
What do we need to know so that we can proceed rationally toward an effective solution?
1. The Scale: Deep's revised Citizen's Petition that will be presented at Town Meeting states that the development will occur on 10 acres of land, and be limited to 120 units and 3 stories tall. Since there is no square footage limitation, (and there is no description of what comprises a unit), the building size is virtually unrestricted. The developer argues that he can't provide the square footage because that would limit the flexibility and dissuade future developer interest in the property. Repeated requests for a building size estimate have gone unanswered. But 120 units is a limit of sorts, 3 stories high is a limit. 10 acres is a limit. And there is nothing inherently wrong with defining the building size too. It would help us better visualize the scale of the allowed development and provide clear guidance to future developers.
2. The Zoning: All parcels of land come with restrictions on how they can be used. There are rules concerning uses (residential or commercial or industrial), there are guidelines about property boundaries, and height restrictions. There are rules associated with watersheds and surrounding land and vegetation. As much as individual may own a property, we recognize that the property is part of a community (local and global) and the community has the right to have a say in how it can be used. When a change is proposed, we also have a right to weigh in. Changing zoning can have significant long-term impacts, and we should take the time to consider those impacts. Recent zoning changes in Williamstown include Cable Mill property, and the proposed change at the foot Spring St to allow for hotel development. In both those cases, a concept plan for the development was available which facilitated understanding of the long-term impacts. This is not the case with the Waubeeka property. There is not a conceptual plan available to facilitate understanding and thereby reducing the uncertainty of what we are agreeing to.
3. The Tax Revenue: At this point, we can't say what the tax revenue implications of a hotel development will be. At the recent Finance Committee meeting, the committee decided not to vote when asked to support the Waubeeka zoning proposal. It was unclear to the Finance Committee whether the proposed zoning change would lead to increased revenue or not. This is partially due to the fact the tax revenue for hotels is based on a complex net income revenue formula. Increased revenue at one hotel could lead to decreased revenue at another, with the net result being no increase in tax revenue to the Town. Without a business plan that supports the proposed (but undefined) development, the finance committee decided not to weigh in.
4. The Details: There are clauses in Deep's zoning proposal that put limits on the conservation restriction – allowing for wells to be constructed, photovoltaicsto be installed, and forestry to be undertaken. These caveats then affect how the 'conserved' land can be handled legally in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It wouldn't fall under typical legal definition of Conservation Restriction and will be more difficult to manage in the future. And the developer has stipulated that if the hotel fails, he could decide to surrender his permit and the land would revert back to residential zoning. This type of decision should be left for future Town boards to decide.
5. The Town Officials' Advice: We elect people to represent us on town boards. We ask them, and are grateful to them, for taking the time to delve deeply into issues; to research current topics; to deliberate; to represent us; to advise us. This particular issue is difficult and there is not a consensus among our community's boards or among our elected officials. The Planning Board is leaning against Deep's Citizen's Petition 3-2, the Select Board is standing on the side of the petition 4-1, and Finance Committee has declined to take a stand. The only thing we can conclude from our elected leaders is that this proposal is not ready for adoption as it currently stands. It doesn't clearly support the principles of smart growth or move us toward sound economic development. It doesn't, in its current state, support the needs of our Town.
Let's work together to make any changes to the Waubeeka property zoning express our desire to welcome developers to our town, while also reflecting our collective desires for balanced growth and a long-term sustainable vision for our town.
With best regards,
26 Waterman Place, Williamstown, MA