Newcomer challenging Williamstown Planning Board chairwoman

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Amy Jeschawitz, the incumbent chairwoman of the Planning Board, is facing a challenge for her seat from political newcomer Dante Birch.

That will be the only contested race on the ballot in the May 14 village elections. Polls will be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Birch, a native of Philadelphia who was raised in Hanover, N.H., is a project manager at Kapiloff Glass in Adams. He has also worked in exhibition planning at Mass MoCA. He lives on Maple Street with his wife and daughter. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's in design and historic preservation from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Birch said he got involved in the local planning conversation over a year ago while the board was researching changes to the zoning laws that might have an effect on his neighborhood.

"I felt protective of that area, and it piqued my interest," he said. "Before that I had not been very engaged. And I also wondered if I didn't know about this, who else doesn't know about it. It was definitely a wake-up call."

So he began attending the Planning Board meetings to better understand the process.

Eventually, he decided to try for a spot on the board, and the only seat up for election is currently occupied by Jeschawitz.

"I think I can contribute and I'd like to," he said. "I have skill sets that I think would be helpful and I want to be part of some positive change."

As an example of his approach, he pointed out the two town meeting warrant articles proposed by the Planning Board to allow slightly more housing choices.

He said he supports Article 32, which will allow more homeowners to convert a single-family structure to a two-family house with fewer town requirements that tend to discourage such efforts.

But Article 33, which allows the construction of Accessory Dwelling Units on conforming properties without requiring a special-use permit, has drawn his opposition. Birch thinks any property owner seeking to build such a unit should be required to get a special-use permit, which would require notification of the neighbors. He says it is unfair to require some property owners to notify the neighborhood, and not others.

"I just don't think that's fair," he said. "And I think the additional requirement is not a debilitating time delay."

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The delay that would result from applying with the Zoning Board of Appeals for a special-use permit could take an additional month or two.

Birch said he plans to offer an amendment to include that requirement in Article 33 from the floor of the May 21 annual town meeting.

Jeschawitz, who has been on the Planning Board for five years and chairwoman for three, said she wants to remain on the job to continue the work of the board, including preparations for the master plan process once the 2020 U.S. Census numbers are out.

"We still have work to do," she said. "I feel I've been a positive influence on moving the community forward. And I enjoy it."

Not afraid to ask hard questions and examine issues that have no easy answers, Jeschawitz said open discussions lead to the right path forward, even with difficult topics.

In examining the opportunities for new housing in Williamstown in an effort to diversify housing and enhance the local economy, Jeschawitz said there are a few opportunities in the Water Street area and along Route 2 east of downtown. In fact, she said, she would like to look at expanding the Village Business District to include the Water Street corridor.

"I think there are opportunities, but it's not going to be easy," she said. "There is a lot of potential there with the opening of Cable Mills and the pending completion of the new Williams Inn."

But she would like to see more housing choices for people working in town who might like to live in town as well.

"We're not trying to tell people what to do, but giving them a choice in what they can do," she said.

Jeschawitz was raised in Illinois and Michigan. Hospitality management led her to Vermont, and then to Cricket Creek Farm in 2006, where she was the first cheesemaker. She wound up working at Canyon Ranch in Lenox.

She said she now devotes her time to her significant other, Stephen, and various civic opportunities such as the Planning Board. Last year, Jeschawitz organized the Friends of Linear Park to help rebuild the park on Water Street, and has been a board member of the Williamstown Rural Land Foundation, volunteers with the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce and other town-sponsored events. In her spare time she enjoys being outdoors with her two dogs, Lodi and Bleau, as well as gardening and beekeeping.

"The biggest thing for me is this community," Jeschawitz said. "I am very passionate about taking this community forward. The biggest thing you need to think about is not just the specific neighborhood or topic, but the community as a whole, and what is the benefit."

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


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