Proposed Williamstown zoning rule would allow accessory apartments

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Planning Board members want to allow property owners to build accessory apartments with fewer restrictions, they said during a public information session Wednesday.

The board is proposing a zoning amendment to that effect, attempting to fulfill a recommendation made in a recent study on enhancing the Williamstown economy. One of the recommendations called for more diversity in the town's housing stock to encourage a broader scope of incomes, which would be a boost for economic activity and the schools in the state's northwesternmost municipality.

Through this proposal, town officials hope to attract professionals who might not be able to afford to live in town. Teachers, nurses, tradesmen, police officers and firefighters are among the professionals who could enhance the local economy and continue to sustain the school system with their children. The median mortgage cost in town is $1,680, with median rents at $1,001, according to the U.S. Census; meanwhile, the average wage earner in Berkshire County cannot afford either.

To allow for the apartments without construction on new lots, the board is trying to allow existing property owners to add small apartments to single-family homes, within the same structure or through an addition. It also would allow a property owner to either convert an existing outbuilding, such as a barn, studio or carriage house, into a single living unit, or build a new, smaller structure as a detached living unit.

Among the challenges for Williamstown are problems that many towns in the county and the state are experiencing — population loss, an aging population and expensive housing costs, town officials said.

Planning Board member Stephanie Boyd said that this is an incremental step in bringing economic diversity to town, and that it would not result in a massive rush to build accessory apartments. Considering the cost and difficulty of such projects, no more than one or two such projects would be likely in any given year. Development experts estimate costs of $40,000 to $150,000, depending on the amount of construction.

Chris Kluchman, Housing Choice program director for the Massachusetts Housing Partnership in the Department of Housing and Community Development, attended the information session to further explain the challenges that Williamstown and the state are facing with declining housing stock and a significant portion of the population spending too much of their income on rent or mortgages.

She said that the housing stock statewide must grow, and that her office encourages the use of accessory apartments as one tactic to grow housing options.

After the challenges and the proposed bylaw change had been explained, the discussion was opened to the roughly two dozen residents in attendance.

Some concerns that had been expressed in the past resurfaced. There were questions about an owner-occupant requirement, meaning that someone would not be allowed to install an additional dwelling unit unless they reside on the property.

Planning officials said that by requiring owner occupation, the effort to allow more housing units by lifting restrictions would be reversed by adding this new restriction. There is no such requirement in the existing law.

There also was a hope expressed by some that the bylaw change would allow a homeowner to convert a single unit dwelling into a two-unit dwelling or to install a detached accessory dwelling unit on their property, but that it would not allow both on the same property. There were also concerns expressed about the need for additional parking.

Board members will take the input they received from residents during the information session and decide whether any changes to the proposal are warranted, said Amy Jeschawitz, chairwoman of the Planning Board.

The final proposal could appear as an article on the Town Meeting warrant in the spring, but first it would be subject to a public hearing, and it would also need approval from the Select Board. To pass, it would have to garner two-thirds of the vote at Town Meeting.

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

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