Waubeeka proposal looms large at forum of Williamstown Planning Board candidates
WILLIAMSTOWN — The debate over a proposed zoning change that would allow the construction of a hotel on Waubeeka Golf Links took center stage this week during a forum for five candidates seeking to fill two open seats on the Planning Board.
Two of the candidates expressed concern that the town is perceived as being anti-business and decried the lack of new business and tax base growth. The others emphasized the importance of the need to preserve open space as one of the area's most important features – and one that attracts tourists.
Planning Board member Elizabeth McGowan's five-year term expires in May; she has chosen not to run for re-election. Two candidates are competing for that seat: Sarah Gardner, who was appointed to fill the seat of Carol Stein Payne, who resigned last fall, and Susan Puddester.
Three others have filed as candidates to fill the remaining two years of Payne's term on the Planning Board: Anne Hogeland, Chris Kapiloff and Bruce MacDonald. Town elections are set for May 10.
The voting pattern of the current five-seat Planning Board shows that a block of three members – Ann McCallum, McGowan and Gardner — have been consistently resistent to the efforts of Mike Deep, owner of Waubeeka, to build a hotel to make the golf course profitable.
Board Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz and board member Chris Winters have supported the effort to create a well-regulated overlay district on the golf course that would allow for a hotel and other amenities.
Deep wants to build a 120-hotel on the golf course property, which is not permitted under the current zoning.
During the candidate forum Wednesday evening at Williamstown Elementary School, the Waubeeka question surfaced even during the candidates' introductory comments.
Kapiloff noted that the Waubeeka question is "certainly an important one," pointing out that the mission of the Planning Board is "primarily about the future" of the community and by its nature will play a role in Williamstown's prosperity — or lack thereof.
Kapiloff is a fourth-generation native of Williamstown, and a 1996 graduate of Mount Greylock High School. He grew up next door to the Waubeeka golf course. After graduating from Messiah College, during which time he rose to the rank of sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves, he taught history at Mount Greylock until 2002. He was elected to the Mount Greylock School Committee in 2004 and served a four-year term.
Kapiloff co-owns an Adams-based company, Kapiloff's Glass, grown from the family business that supplies specialized glass products to construction projects.
He said the town needs to broaden its economic base and lose its reputation for being "antibusiness, cumbersome, unsupportive and protectionist."
Hogeland, a 22-year resident of South Williamstown, highlighted her community activities such as her leadership role in the Williamstown Farmers Market, her background as an attorney and her work with the schools in a variety of boards and committees.
"Zoning bylaws are our local laws and they are very complex," she said. "We have to think about these things carefully. My legal training and experience will be an asset to the board as it attempts to prepare well-crafted zoning bylaws."
She said she is in favor of zoning bylaws that would encourage aging members of the community to remain in their homes by allowing them to subdivide the home and rent out some of the space. Hogeland also said she is looking forward to a review of the town's 14-year-old master plan.
Her husband is Andrew Hogeland, who serves on the Williamstown Board of Selectmen. Both have publicly expressed opposition to Deep's hotel proposals.
MacDonald, a real estate developer, is a neighbor of Waubeeka on Hancock Road. He noted that he is a "relative newcomer" to town, and hopes to bring "fresh eyes" to the town's zoning challenges.
"It's become apparent to me that the zoning laws are out of date and detrimental to any kind of business growth," MacDonald said.
He said he would be interested in evolving some areas into form-based zoning districts, which would allow multiple uses in existing structures, or new structures that adhere to the visible appearance of the surrounding buildings. Uses could include home offices for attorneys, professional service companies or medical offices.
"Form-based code would maintain the current appearance of existing structures and require design review for new development," he said. "It will provide business owners and service providers a 'by right' opportunity to locate or relocate their businesses to one of the new form-based areas."
He expressed his opposition to the Waubeeka proposal as it now stands.
"I would support rezoning of a smaller portion of Waubeeka to allow construction of an inn, including amenities and up to 65 guest rooms," MacDonald said.
Puddester said she was raised in Vermont, majored in social work in college and lived in Annapolis, Md., for more than 30 years with her husband, Fred. She founded and operated a small business, worked for a long time for the Agency on Aging there.
Two months after her family moved to Williamstown in 2011, Tropical Storm Irene struck, she noted. In the aftermath, Puddester became active with Higher Ground in relocating flooded-out residents of The Spruces mobile home park.
She called for an expanded tax base to solve the budget problems faced by local schools.
"There has been no growth in the town's tax base in a decade," she said. "Thoughtful and modest growth in the tax base will allow us to invest in our schools without burdening the taxpayers. The Planning Board should take a leadership role in making that happen."
Gardner couldn't attend the forum as she had a previously scheduled conference in Baltimore on climate change preparedness. Instead, she provided a video statement for the forum.
She is associate director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College, where she teaches environmental planning. She has served on a number of local and regional boards including the Williamstown Conservation Commission, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, the Berkshire Bike Path Committee and the Keep Berkshire Farming initiative.
Gardner said the Waubeeka proposal has "morphed" from a concept from a small country inn to a 40-acre development.
"I became skeptical about whether a development of that size and type was in the town's best interest," she said. "I felt it was irresponsible as town planners to support a rezoning that would allow such a massive resort in an area that the town meeting twice voted to protect from overdevelopment. All growth is not good growth."
Gardner also expressed support for preserving operating farms and open space as part of the economic goals of the town.
"We can expand our tax base and preserve our natural surroundings," she added.
As the forum progressed, Puddester and Kapiloff expressed frustration with the Planning Board and its focus on delaying the Waubeeka application.
"Do we want to maintain the status quo [in town] at the cost of its future," Kapiloff wondered. "I think it's a terrible precedent and I think we need to change the course the Planning Board has taken."
Hogeland said the problem was with Mike Deep's reluctance to provide more information that had been repeatedly requested by the Planning Board.
"It was a changing concept that gave no sense of what the proposal would actually be," she said. "I think it is reasonable to ask him to do a little homework."
MacDonald said the proper zoning could be reached with some compromise by Deep.
"I would like to see it," he said. "It would be a plus for the town but it has to be done properly."
Puddester said the Planning Board bears some responsibility.
"It's too bad the Planning Board couldn't work with the [golf course] owner," she said.
Contact Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301.
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