WILLAMSTOWN — Real estate developer Michael Deep cleared a major hurdle on Tuesday in his effort to build a country inn at Waubeeka Golf Links.
More than two-thirds of the 765 registered voters at annual town meeting approved a zoning bylaw amendment that would permit commercial development at the site. The vote, 418 to 192, allows Deep to advance to the next planning stage of the project.
The article was moved up from last on the meeting agenda by voter approval and lively debate began about 8 p.m.
Deep said he was humbled by the support.
"Our job is just beginning," he said. "There is so much work to do, so much positive work."
Deep hopes to add a country inn on the site to increase revenue at the golf course, which he has said is losing money annually and is in danger of closing down. But he has faced strong opposition from some in the community who believe the scale of the project would be inappropriate for the South Williamstown area.
Tuesday's approval followed nearly two hours of debate about amendments to the bylaw proposed by Deep as a citizens petition and another proposal crafted by outgoing Planning Board member Sarah Gardner and current board member Ann McCallum.
Town Moderator Adam Filson called for show of hand voter cards for all amendment versions to both proposals after voice votes failed to demonstrate clear majorities.
The approved bylaw changes wording, eliminating the word "unit" and replacing it with "room." A conservation restriction remains in place, but allows uses including geothermal cooling or heating construction, photovoltaic panels, tree farming and "passive recreation."
A sunset clause, which allows Deep to cease operations at the inn if the business proves unprofitable and develop housing under the sites original residential zoned use also remains in the approved bylaw.
Prior to bylaw approval, town resident Ann Hogeland proposed changes that eliminated any use under the conservation restriction and eliminated the sunset clause.
After lengthy discussion both for and against the proposed changes, Hogeland's version was approved, but minutes later, Deep's attorney, Stanley Parese, motioned to restore the sunset clause and the allowed conservation uses. Parese told voters that Deep would agree to changing the term "unit" to "room," but if the sunset-clause removal and more stringent conservation restriction remained in place, the project would not move forward.
"If this bylaw passes as it currently is this thing isn't getting built," he said from the speaker's podium.
When called to a vote, voters approved Parese's restorations and the bylaw was approved after more discussion. The idea that Deep could walk away from the inn and turn to housing should the inn fail was among the concerns.
The Planning Board amendment to the bylaw, which would have posed significant restrictions on the project, was not called to a vote.
Immediately following the vote, the crowd inside the Williamstown Elementary School thinned by nearly 50 percent. Dozens of people shook Deep's hand, hugged him, and offered congratulations.
A proposal to expand the town's Village Business District was approved by a two-thirds majority voice vote. The approval means the zoning designation of property south of Latham Street and west of Spring Street and currently zoned as general residential will be changed, clearing the way for Williams College to continue its quest to build a new Williams Inn at Spring Street's southern end.
Symbolism took center stage during debate about the Williamstown Elementary School's fiscal 2017 budget. After voters approved a motion hiking the proposed budget by $58,000 to $6,139,476, town resident Sam Crane asked that voters approve an amendment for $27 reduction.
The significance was to represent $1 for every year of the existence of the school's Side by Side preschool program. Voters approved the $27 cut and ultimately approved with a voice vote a $6,139,449 budget.
In early budget negotiations, the administration eliminated the full-day portion of Side by Side to reflect a decline in enrollment, prompting howls of protest by some supporters of the program. The School Committee last week agreed to increase the budget by $58,000 to add a third half-day unit of Side by Side, but many supporters argue those funds could go a long way toward restoring the full-day program.
Those voices were heard loudly at Tuesday's meeting.
Crane said the additional $58,000 now in the budget could be spent at the pleasure of the School Committee.
"They can restore Side by Side," he said.
The town's assessment to the Mount Greylock Regional School District was approved with no debate. The original $ 6,414,319 assessment was reduced at Town Meeting to $5,982,213.
MGRHS School Committee Chairwoman Carrie Green was presented the first ever Scarborough-Solomon-Flynt Award, which honors community service and dedication.
"They say public service is a thankless job, but I have been thanked," she said after receiving a standing ovation.
The Williamstown League of Women Voters annual Outstanding Town Employee award was presented to town Administrative Assistant Debra Turnbull. League President Anne R. Skinner made the presentation.
Turnbull earned the honor for her "caring and compassion, her creative solutions, and her skill in managing the transition from (former Town Manager) Peter Fohlin to (current Town Manager) Jason Hoch."