Three on Williamstown Planning Board offer new proposal for Waubeeka hotel plan

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Capping an eight-month process Wednesday, three members of the Planning Board passed a surprise proposal for the Waubeeka Golf Links hotel plan that the owner has said is too restrictive and will not allow enough building space to provide adequate revenue.

The vote drew strong reactions from two members of the Planning Board and from Jane Patton, chairwoman of the Williamstown Select Board.

"I think this process is flawed," Patton said. "And on some levels, I am embarrassed. Let something happen that's not so restrictive."

"I think this [proposal] will kill economic opportunity on that site (Waubeeka), and I think that was the intent all along," said board member Christopher Winters.

The board's effort is meant to amend a citizen petition to Town Meeting — submitted by attorney Stanley Parese, who represents Waubeeka owner Michael Deep — that seeks to alter zoning at the golf course to allow Deep to pursue a country inn there.

The new proposal, written by board member Sarah Gardner and referred to as the Gardner Amendment, brings back a clause that had been deemed dormant at the end of last week's meeting.

The clause in the Gardner Amendment sets the total square footage of building space on the course at 50,000 square feet, and if the owner wants to go to 60,000 square feet, he would have to set aside another 40 acres of land for permanent conservation restriction.

At last week's meeting, Deep, through his attorney, offered to set aside 67.5 acres of undeveloped land in a conservation restriction, a concession that seemed to spark concessions from three board members who had opposed every Waubeeka proposal thus far.

Deep previously said that the golf course is losing money annually and is in danger of closing. He hopes to add a country inn to make the course profitable and bring more visitors to town.

During the ongoing process, he has expressed a desire to build a 300-seat banquet hall, swimming pool and tennis courts, along with a pro shop, clubhouse and restaurant to service hotel guests and golfers.

If his effort to change the zoning fails and he has to close the golf course, Deep has said he would move forward with plans to build a residential subdivision where the golf course now stands. The land is already zoned for residential use.

By the end of that meeting last week, both sides seemed headed for agreement with only one more issue that needed to be settled.

Since that meeting, staff compiled two different documents, as instructed by the board. One would limit hotel building size by only allowing structures on 10 acres or less. The other would seek to limit building size by capping square footage at somewhere between 60,000 and 75,000 square feet. Otherwise, both documents were identical.

The clause for additional conservation-restricted land was removed by consensus of the entire board at that meeting.

When the meeting started Wednesday, board member Elizabeth McGowan immediately moved to endorse a third document, the Gardner Amendment, to which Winters expressed incredulity.

"I am taken aback by this third proposal," Winters said. "It was very clear at the end of the last meeting we were down to one issue of disagreement. Now this is coming out of left field. We had a deal. This is going back on that deal."

Gardner maintained that the amendment was essentially the same, with the only difference being that the square footage limits had been established. Pressed to explain further, she noted that the requirement for additional conservation restriction was also a difference from the other documents. She referred to it as a "compromise, because each side gives up something they want."

Board member Ann McCallum said she had been hearing from community members that there wasn't enough conserved open space and that the potential for a building of too much bulk was drawing opposition.

"We felt we were losing support," she said.

Three board members supported the Gardner amendment, explaining that there are areas near the river that need protection, and couldn't be built on in any case. They repeatedly expressed their support for Waubeeka Golf Links and the concept of a "small country inn" on the property.

Gardner made it clear that in her opinion, her amendment stood the best chance of passage at Town Meeting because so many voters have expressed a desire for more restricted open space on the golf course property.

"We want to be sure it will be palatable to the rest of the community," she said.

But Winters wondered how this would help when it is hurtful to the property owner and limiting to his plans that it would effectively make the project unworkable.

"This is a huge step backwards," he said. "They (Waubeeka ownership) offered a generous conservation restriction, and now we're saying 'Let's see what else we can get,' and that's going back on the deal."

Board Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz noted a pattern the board has seen before.

"We get almost to agreement, and then we take a step backwards," she said. "We keep tacking on things every time we get close to making a decision."

Jeschawitz pointed out the similarities between a zoning change requested by Williams College for the location of a new Williams Inn at the bottom of Spring Street, which gained unanimous endorsement from the Planning Board with little discussion.

"How can we do the same thing for one applicant, and not for another?" she asked. "We are inhibiting growth, economic development and even opportunity in this town."

Board member Ann McCallum said it is the duty of the planning board to regulate zoning.

"That's our job," she said. "Unfettered development is not necessarily a good thing."

In a roll call vote, board members Gardner, McGowan and McCallum voted in favor of the Gardner Amendment. Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz and Winters opposed the amendment.

According to Andrew Groff, Williamstown community development director, Wednesday's vote will result in two competing amendments to the citizen petition proposing the Waubeeka Overlay District.

One will be the Gardner Amendment offered by the Planning Board. The other will be what is being called there Acreage Amendment, which would be offered by the property owner.

It limits building space to 10 acres in the northeastern corner of the golf course property. It also caps the number of hotel rooms at 120, the height of the hotel to three stories, and addresses aesthetics and the project's effect on view sheds.

For either amendment to be attached to the citizen petition, it would have to win a simple majority of votes at Town Meeting. For the citizen petition seeking to change the zoning bylaw to pass, it would need a two-thirds majority of the vote.

Contact Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301.


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