The Williamstown Community Association (WCA) hosted a forum to debate a proposed amendment to the Williamstown zoning bylaws on Thursday, May 6. If passed, the amendment would remove Williams College’s exemption from town building height requirements, as well as increasing the maximum allowable height for all Williamstown buildings to 40 or 45 feet, depending on the district. The proposed amendment could potentially affect the building of the new College performing arts center.
Under the current regulations, educational, municipal and religious institutions do not have to meet the height requirements imposed on other, commercial buildings. If the proposed amendment passes, however, these institutions could only exceed the height requirement if they appealed to the Zoning Board of Appeals and were granted special exemptions on a case-by-case basis.
“We have determined that it is in the interests of the town to eliminate the exemption,” Mary Fuqua of the Williamstown Planning Board, which proposed the amendment, said at Thursday’s forum. “It has nothing to do with whether the College is a good or a bad neighbor…but a tall building is a tall building, whoever buys it.”
One of the amendment’s most vocal supporters is the WCA, a group of local citizens whose aim is to “preserve, protect, and promote neighborhood and community values including…thoughtful stewardship of our man-made and natural townscapes.”
“The current proposal by Williams College to build a performing arts complex directly threatens the character and well-being of three neighborhoods,” reads the Association’s literature. “And the example that it sets for how major projects are planned and carried out in Williamstown threatens the entire community as well.”
Zane Lumelsky spoke on behalf of the Association at Thursday’s forum. “Whenever you have a zoning bylaw, or any kind of law, and you exclude a party…you immediately create problems; you immediately create inequities,” Lumelsky said. “The purpose of the zoning [amendment] is to apply these rules and regulations equally fairly to everyone.”
The College administration is strongly opposed to the amendment. Helen Ouellette, Vice President for Administration at Williams, acted as the College’s representative at the forum. “I am disappointed by the bylaw [amendment] because it seems to me that it starts at the end of a process, a process of discussing together about how we see the College and the town growing into the future.”
“I know there’s a lot of anger,” she added, “but without a true and open dialogue we’re not going to get past it.”
Also speaking against the amendment on Thursday was the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce. “We share the planning Board’s desire to maintain the historic and natural beauty of Williamstown,” the Chamber’s Board wrote in a letter to the Williamstown Board of Selectmen, presented at the forum. “But not only do the proposed height regulations fail to accomplish this, but also these changes, if implemented, will have a major negative impact on the future of our community.”
“Williams College and the Clark [also affected by an exemption removal] provide the economic foundation of our community,” the letter continued. “While their future development plans should be discussed responsibly as a community, an unworkable review process should not be legislated.”
One of the College’s and the Chamber of Commerce’s major objections to the amendment concerns its enforceability. Because state law, as well as the current town law, recognizes an exemption for educational institutions, the removal of the town bylaw exemption may not actually force Williams to abide by the height restrictions.
If, for example, the College wanted to construct a building over the height limit, and the Zoning Board failed to grant it an exemption, the College could appeal to the state courts and could potentially be allowed to carry on with construction.
Why, then, is the amendment being proposed? “With this law, Williams would no longer have [the ability to build over the limit] by right,” Lumelsky explained. “However, it wouldn’t prevent them from doing it. They would simply have to jump through more hoops; they’d have to prove that this was an important building for their educational mission.”
The concern, therefore, is primarily over increased costs and longer delays. “The exemption will always trump the bylaw,” Ouellette noted. “But the cost to the College of delays and legal hassles could be very high.”
“But what bothers me more,” she added, “is what I consider a much higher cost to both the town and the College of a confrontational rather than a cooperative relationship.”
Although the amendment may have a significant effect on future College projects, as well as on the College’s relations with the town, the effect on the performing arts center will likely be quite small, despite the reactions it has generated among Williamstown citizens.
According to Fuqua, “I think the performing arts center is an absolutely ideal example of the type of structure which will quite justly receive an exemption from any height restrictions. You can’t build a theater within 45 feet, so this is the kind of case where the town will need to take the opportunity to relieve the College of observing the height requirement.”
Whether or not the amendment passes, or whether it would in fact significantly affect the College, the proposal has at least engaged the College and the community in discussing the impact of College construction on the town. Lumelsky said, “This amendment has been an impetus: if it wasn’t on the table…we wouldn’t be having this dialogue.”
A two-thirds vote during the May 18 town meeting will be required to pass the bylaw amendment.