College and town must cooperate

In the September 29, 1998 issue of the Record, our second of the academic year, we ran an editorial urging the College to be more forthcoming with information about the planning of the new theatre and dance facility, to be sensitive to the concerns of the Williamstown community, to be a better neighbor. In this week’s issue, our last of the academic year, we reported on a proposed amendment to the Williamstown zoning bylaws that would eliminate the College’s exemption to height restrictions on new buildings. In a sense, we’ve come full circle.

In many ways, the proposed amendment is a sad commentary on the failure of the College and the town to communicate and cooperate amicably. Although Mary Fuqua of the Williamstown Planning Board is quoted as saying that the amendment has “nothing to do with whether the College is a good or a bad neighbor,” it is our suspicion that the measure would not be on the table were it not for the impending construction of the new theatre and dance facility and the considerable controversy that has surrounded the proposed site since it was first provisionally identified last spring.

Under the new amendment, the exemption from town height restrictions would be eliminated and all proposed buildings over 45 feet tall would need to appeal on a case-by-case basis to the Zoning Board of Appeals to be granted a special exemption. Of course, in the case of Williams College and the Clark Art Institute, the two institutions most directly affected by the proposed amendment, the proposed amendment might not actually prevent the institutions from exceeding the height restriction because state law also recognizes zoning exemptions for educational institutions. Since Williams could still appeal to the state courts, the proposed amendment would only make construction of tall buildings more difficult and acrimonious.

As Williams Vice President for Administration Helen Ouellette pointed out, the proposed amendment is especially discouraging because it places the College and the town in a “confrontational rather than a cooperative relationship.” In the end, Williams will probably still be able to build whatever it wants on its own land, but if the new amendment passes there will be very little hope of the College being able to build anything without open town-gown antagonism.

One can only wonder how we have come to this. Some members of the community, like the Williamstown Community Association, believe that the amendment is the only way to provoke discussion of the community issues being raised by new College construction. WCA spokesman Zane Lumelsky said in this week’s Record, “if [the amendment] wasn’t on the table. . .we wouldn’t be having this dialogue.” If he is right, it means that relations between the College and community are so strained that the only way the community can make its voice heard is to threaten to institutionalize an antagonistic stance towards the College. This would be a profoundly sad state of affairs.

The College is currently the largest single employer in Williamstown, as well as the largest single taxpayer. College issues are community issues and if we are as inept at communicating and discussing community issues as some of our neighbors apparently believe, we are at a real crisis point.

The College needs to listen to the community and be sensitive to community concerns, but similarly, Williamstown needs to allow the College the opportunity to be a considerate neighbor, while at the same time not unduly infringing upon its rights as property owners. As long as the state recognizes zoning exemptions for educational institutions, Williams will probably continue to construct the buildings it wants, but these buildings can be built in one of two ways – within the spirit of cooperation and concern for community concerns, or in outright defiance of the town. If the proposed amendment passes, it practically guarantees that future building projects will take the form of the latter.

In our editorial of September 29, 1998, we urged the College to be a better neighbor, and we stand by that position, but we are saddened by the prospect of creating laws, which would codify town-gown antagonism.