Board seeks to solve owner-occupied question in debate over housing stock

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WILLIAMSTOWN — The Planning Board has run into a philosophical standoff over a proposal to diversify the town's housing stock.

At issue is whether to require the owner to be an occupant on the property. With a few simple changes to the zoning bylaw, property owners would be able to convert a single-family home into a two-family use or add an external structure for a family member, or for rental purposes.

But some are also pushing hard for a requirement that the owner live on the property, while others think it's important to allow property owners to rent out all of the units on the parcel without having to reside there.

An hourslong debate over the proposal, which has the goal of enhancing the local economy and attracting younger families with children to bolster attendance at local schools, took place last week at a regular Planning Board meeting.

The board is trying to come up with wording that is acceptable to the board members and stands a good chance of passage at Town Meeting in June. The proposal would apply to all residential zones in town.

But first, they must settle the owner-occupied question.

Some feel that requiring the owner to live in one of the units will insure that the property is well-maintained and its tenants are well-behaved. Board Member Alex Carlisle said he is convinced that requiring owner-occupation will solve several problems, including the potential for parking issues and problems associated with absentee landlords, and would be less likely to change the nature of the neighborhoods.

Others maintain that if an owner is required to live on the property, fewer buyers would be likely to want to purchase a property with that requirement, thus defeating the purpose of the proposal by failing to attract a more diverse housing stock.

Some at the meeting also voiced concern that many owner-occupied homes are not well as well-maintained as many rental units.

Planning Board Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz offered optimism that the owner-occupation issue could be resolved with subsequent discussions.

"I think we're very close" to completing the proposal, she said. "The only thing left is owner/occupant and these are things that need to be talked about."

The push to diversify the housing stock was one of the recommendations made in a recent study on enhancing the Williamstown economy. The study concluded that this would encourage a broader diversity of incomes, which in turn would help maintain the town's economic activity. Teachers, nurses, tradesmen, police officers and firefighters are among the types of professionals who could enhance the local economy and continue to sustain the school system with their children.

Wrong message

Board Member Chris Winter said requiring owner-occupation limits the market and sends the wrong message about Williamstown.

"In my mind that's a step towards making our town too exclusive and reduces the likelihood of the new ordinance being used by removing an entire class of buyers -- and reduces the number of rental units," Winter said.

He wondered why living next to tenants is any worse than living next to someone who owns the property. "I'm perfectly fine with renters living in my neighborhood," he said.

Board Member Stephanie Boyd noted that the number of accessory dwelling units likely to be developed is so small that "we don't want to further restrict that."

There were other concerns aired, including the parking question: If someone divides a home into two units and adds an additional detached dwelling unit, where would the occupants park?

The proposal requires at least one parking space per each detached living unit, but for two adults or a family, there may be more than one car involved.

But some residents don't want to see the zoning bylaw changed at all, and don't see the need for more diversified housing stock.

"The reason I moved to this town is because it's mostly single-family homes," said Andrew Munzer. "I have trouble understanding why we need more housing when we have a shrinking population. It seems like the whole thing is misguided."

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.








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