In 3-2 vote, Williamstown planners opt against zoning change at Waubeeka
WILLIAMSTOWN — A citizens petition to amend zoning in South Williamstown to allow for construction of a hotel at Waubeeka Golf Links failed to gain the support of the town's Planning Board.
After roughly two hours of public input at a hearing last week, three of the five Planning Board members voted not to recommend the bylaw change to Town Meeting, which will ultimately decide its fate. At Williamstown's annual town meeting on May 17, the zoning change would need a two-thirds majority to pass.
The Planning Board's vote, and actions taken in previous weeks during the process, resulted in charges of politics and insensitivity to the town's need to expand the tax base and economic development from board members voting in the minority.
Waubeeka owner Michael Deep is seeking to build a hotel on the golf course to increase revenue and sustain an operation that he said has been losing money for years, hopefully staving off the closing of the business and the loss of more than 40 jobs.
Deep has been working with the Planning Board since last fall to compose a bylaw the panel could support.
Some members of the board wanted more information, such as who the developer would be, a market feasibility study, and a schematic design of the proposal.
Deep's attorney, Stanley Parese, maintained that no developer would waste his time on a project until the proper zoning is in place and the type of feasibility study some board members were seeking is proprietary.
In January, three board members passed a motion to table further discussion on the bylaw until these three items were provided, although they had the opportunity to rewrite the proposed bylaw to satisfy any of their concerns at the same meeting.
Parese said that requirement would delay the process because those items are unattainable until the zoning is in place, forcing Deep to file the proposal as a citizens petition, thus bypassing the need to get approval from the Planning Board.
Others contend that all three items are possible without finalizing the zoning, and that they have been asking for such information throughout the process.
Before the start of last Tuesday's Planning Board meeting, board chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz read a statement into the record that highlighted economic challenges Williamstown faces and has faced, noting that outside capital investment in Williamstown has languished for years, and that there is a political unwillingness to confront that malaise. She said the town will have to make hard choices to benefit the whole town, not just parts of it.
"We all need to make sacrifices," Jeschawitz said. "It has become clear to me over the past few months that there is an increasing agenda being put forth by members of both the Select Board and members of this Planning Board. It is politics, I understand that, although I do not agree. Our commitments as board members are to consider the community as a whole — not to promote individual agendas. To borrow words from a friend of mine, 'I think we are better than that.'"
During the hearing, a number of Waubeeka employees and associates expressed support for the concept and for Deep's efforts to save the business. A few other town residents also spoke in favor of the project, lamenting a stagnant local economy and tax base in the face of rising costs and an increasing need to cut school and municipal budgets.
"We need to bring more people here, to keep the restaurants open and keep the stores open," said Hugh Daley, town resident and member of the Williamstown Board of Selectmen. "Change is scary. But the only thing scarier than change, in this case, is not changing because the trajectory we are now on is unsustainable."
Several South Williamstown neighbors of the golf course opposed the proposal, contending that the bylaw allows too much acreage — 20 percent of a 200-acre parcel — for commercial development along Route 7. They also object to changing the town's definition of "hotel" to allow time shares as part of the operation.
Andy Hogeland, a resident of South Williamstown and also a member of the Select Board, said the proposal would allow time shares in any hotel in town, and had no provision to permanently protect open space on the parcel, although the proposed bylaw does provide for 80 percent open space on the parcel, or about 160 acres.
He also pointed out that the bylaw would allow development of more than 2,000 feet of golf course property along Route 7.
"We're stuck with a petition that allows a lot more and a lot worse than the vision that [Deep] has been proposing," he said.
One resident of South Williamstown said she liked the idea.
"In my opinion," said Jane Miller of Oblong Road, "this is a win-win for all involved. It raises the tax base, increases employment and attracts tourists. A 'stay and play' option would be a boon to our community."
Another neighbor, Bruce McDonald, said the concept of a country inn wouldn't need that much space.
"Forty acres is way more than it would require," he said. "I support the concept of a country inn, but the scope described in this bylaw is way out of control."
Many opposed to the bylaw said a hotel footprint wouldn't need any more than six to 10 acres.
After more than two hours of testimony and discussion, Planning Board members Ann McCallum, Sarah Gardner and Elizabeth McGowan voted against recommending passage of the zoning bylaw at town meeting.
McGowan, in explaining her opposition to the proposal, said the Route 7 corridor coming into Williamstown is an essential gateway to town that attracts tourists to the area.
"We have to be very, very careful not only with the view shed but also with the use of the land in this area," she said.
Board member Ann McCallum also pointed to the beauty of the region and its importance to attracting tourists into the area.
"It's pristine. It's just beautiful now," she said. "There's one small, not that beautiful of a building [on the golf course], but it's small. If we had instead of that a huge, hulking Mariott Hotel that everybody thinks is ugly surrounded by a lot of parking, then nobody is going to thank you for doing it or thank us for allowing it to happen."
Jeschawitz and Chris Winters supported its passage.
A proposed zoning change had earlier in the meeting been granted to Williams College to facilitate the construction of he new Williams Inn at the bottom of Spring Street. It passed unanimously with little objection. Jeschawitz wondered why.
"In essence, both of these items are the same and we're treating these two differently because of who it is, and that is wrong," she said.
Board member Chris Winter also chastised fellow board members, accusing them of putting undue requirements on the applicant too early in the development process.
"I think it is crazy that this board would substitute its amateur opinion about the likelihood of a viable business for that of an entrepreneur who is willing to put his time and money and reputation at risk," he said. "That requirement on the part of this board sends not only a chilling message to this applicant, but to every potential business owner that is in or is looking to come into Williamstown. That is a terrible chilling message for this Planning Board to send, and it is sending it tonight."
One resident, Donald Dubendorf, bemoaned what he saw as an obstructionist process.
"This is a process that is uniquely unfriendly to any development other than the Clark and the college," he said. "There are lots of things we don't know and can't know yet, and we'll never get there if we don't make it possible."
The Williamstown Select Board has yet to take a position on the citizens petition's zoning bylaw for Town Meeting.
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