WILLIAMSTOWN — Planning Board members this week said they need more time to study a zoning change that would allow construction of $45 million hotel/resort at Waubeeka Golf Links.
At a meeting that stretched more than three hours, some members expressed concerns that the project would degrade the flavor of the "pristine open space" of the southern gateway into Williamstown, and that the proposed zoning change left the owner too much latitude in designing the structure.
The board ultimately tabled the discussion and scheduled another meeting for Jan. 27.
Owner Michael Deep is proposing to build a "high-end" hotel with restaurant, swimming pool and tennis courts, on part of a parcel on the north side of the golf course. Deep, through his attorney Stanley Parese, noted that the course has lost $4 million in the last six years, a pattern that is not sustainable. The hotel would generate more revenue for both the golf course and the town economy, and make the business viable again.
A hotel is not permitted on the South Williamstown property, which currently is in a rural residential zone.
The proposed bylaw would create a commercial overlay district on the 200-acre site, which would allow the owner to apply for a special permit for the project. If the Planning Board approves of the bylaw, it would still need the backing of the Select Board and a two-thirds majority at town meeting,
During Monday night's meeting, some members and neighbors raised questions about how to be sure that the golf course remains at 80 percent open space, and whether to somehow restrict the owner from building residential homes on the property some time in the future.
Select board member Andrew Hogeland, who also is a neighbor, said the bylaw wasn't specific enough.
"This language is far bigger than what Mike (Deep) has asked for — the bylaw would allow him to build the hotel and residences on that property," he said.
Deep's attorney maintained that there was no deception involved, that what Deep proposed in all he intends to do with the property.
"There is no bait-and-switch here," Parese said. "All the cards are on the table."
Another neighbor, Sherwood Guernsey, requested several times that the board delay a vote on the bylaw to give them more time to research and rewrite the bylaw so it more clearly limits where the 80 percent of open space would be maintained and how to limit the owner from building any residential units on the property.
"I think there needs to be more time spent on this," he said. "We need to provide something to the town meeting that will not be divisive."
He also suggested a conservation restriction be required to guarantee that 80 percent of the property remain open space in perpetuity.
Parese said a conservation restriction was "a non-starter," that restricting uses on 80 percent of the property would limit the owner's ability to sell the property because no buyer would be able to do anything with it. If such a restriction continued to be part of the discussion, Parese said, the project would become irrelevant to the owner, and he would be forced to move on with plans to develop single-family homes on the property according to its present residential zoning.
Several members of the Planning Board expressed concerns with the bylaw as written, citing vagueness in the wording.
Citing perceptions that the town is unfriendly to business interests, board Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz said she did not want to further delay the business owner, and asked the board to fix the bylaw before the meeting adjourned. She was reluctant to delay the proposal past the scheduled town meeting, which would delay the proposal another year until the next town meeting.
"To let this go by is unfair to the community, to the (property) owner and to any developer who might want to come into town to build this project," she said. "And we still have time."
So the board went through the proposal line by line, inserting language that would alleviate those concerns.
But by 10:30 p.m., the questions open space and residential units on the property had not been resolved. Still reluctant to further delay the proposal, Jeschawitz asked that the board change its monthly schedule and begin meeting biweekly for a time to deal with a mounting list of tasks, with the Waubeeka proposal among the first.
They set another meeting for Jan. 27, at which time they would continue in revising the proposed bylaw.
Four of the five members would need to vote in favor to approve the proposal. If the bylaw is approved by the Planning Board, it would go to the Select Board for an endorsement and any suggestions they might like to make. It would then come back to the Planning Board for final approval, and then would be included as an article on the warrant for the next town meeting.
Town meeting voters would have to approve the new bylaw with a two-thirds majority. If the bylaw clears town meeting, the Waubeeka proposal would have to go to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a special permit, at which time more specific plans and designs would be drawn up and introduced.
Deep, a North Adams developer, has owned Waubeeka since 2014.
In his proposal, he noted that the goal for the proposed building is to be "100 percent self-sustained and environmentally friendly using a combination of three possible methodologies — solar panels on the roof, on a parking canopy and/or a solar array located on 67 acres off the 13th hole."
He has said he needs to secure developers and investors for the project, and has pointed out that it could expand the town's tax base and provide new jobs in the area.
Deep also has committed to make the project "an environmentally sustainable project that is designed and constructed to meet or exceed the design criteria set forth in the existing National Register of Historic Places designating documents for the surrounding Five Corners neighborhood."