Lauren R. Stevens: Danger of tarring planners as villains
WILLIAMSTOWN >> Planning in Williamstown took a hit this spring. The public grew impatient with the process the Planning Board was using to vet a proposal to change zoning to allow a "country inn" in a rural zone to save the Waubeeka golf course. That impatience cost the town the official services of two fine candidates in the Planning Board elections and, perhaps, led to the bullying of a third planner at Town Meeting.
The flag bearer for this test of the efficacy of planning was unlikely, a landlord, developer and insurance agent whose actions in North Adams were the subject of controversy. Recently the Williamstown Conservation Commission bawled him out for not just taking a mulligan but doing precisely what they had told him not to on that very golf course.
Nevertheless, he is a personable guy who attracts a following. And his case seemed to have merit. Waubeeka is leaking money and needs a year-around way to make it profitable. Or — and this threat has been used in the past — he would build lots of houses on the course, which zoning permits, thus cluttering the scenic southern gateway.
Town leaders, concerned about tight school budgets and unsure how the town could sustain itself without more tax income, supported Planning Board candidates perceived as friendlier to development and supported the zoning change. Some argued that the planners had no right to question the size or viability of the project. If the owner squanders his money on a failure, that's his lookout, they said.
No one seemed to object to a "country inn," but the proponent was coy about how large it would be. Size and viability may, in fact, be the crucial question planners should ask, in an era when the Berkshires are losing population. To be sure, Williamstown's population decline was exaggerated by the demise of The Spruces.
Failed projects north and south on Route 7 make the case for planning. A cavernous, unused racetrack grandstand, along with the motels and trailer parks it drew, mar the Pownal valley — similar in sweeping beauty to the south entrance to Williamstown. The undeveloped Snowy Owl Resort has a depressing effect on New Ashford.
Does Williamstown want a large, empty hotel? Amazingly, one of the defeated candidates for the Planning Board negotiated a change to the proposal at Town Meeting. The proponent was unwilling to have a square foot limitation on his hotel, but he agreed to a change in wording from the number of "units" allowed to the number of "rooms," somewhat limiting size.
As for viability, the planner attempted to limit the number of houses that could be built on the site if the hotel fails. Although the majority initially voted for it, the proponent's amendment to strike the provision also passed.
If the inn finds a backer, he may play that card, saying that if the town doesn't agree to extend water and sewer pipes to the inn, he'll build houses. As well as being expensive, water and sewer lines would increase development pressure for the rest of South Williamstown.
Planning boards are not intended to stop projects, rather to modify them. Intelligent planning benefits the community and the developer, by testing his options. That's what was going on in Williamstown. Unfortunately planning became the villain, with consequences that may reach beyond what happens at Waubeeka.
At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.
A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.