After months of deliberations, the Williamstown Planning Board plans to settle on a compromise amendment at its meeting tonight at 5 p.m. that would improve the chances of the Waubeeka Overlay District proposal passing at Williamstown’s annual town meeting.
Since September, the Board has been working on crafting an amendment to a citizen’s petition filed by Michael Deep, the owner of Waubeeka Golf Links. The amendment would allow Deep to build a country inn on his property while satisfying the concerns of the property’s neighbors regarding conservation of the land. The only remaining issue that needs to be settled is whether the Board ought to determine the scope of the development project by acreage or square footage.
Deep, a resident of North Adams, Mass. who purchased Waubeeka in March 2014, reported that Waubeeka has “been in the red” every year since he acquired it and as a result, he needs to find a way to make the business profitable beyond its current operations or risk closing. Aspiring to make Waubeeka “the best golf course in Massachusetts,” Deep originally sought to construct dwelling units, such as timeshares, on the property before conceding that he would forego this plan to appease abutters of Waubeeka.
At the Board’s most recent meeting last Thursday, Stan Parese ’79, Deep’s attorney, offered an additional concession that, in exchange for securing the right to build a country inn on the prop-erty, Deep would place 67 acres of Waubeeka under conservation restriction. Though Parese previously deemed the idea of entering any acreage into conservation restriction a “non-starter,” Deep has since expressed willingness to forego the opportunity to develop that land, receiving a break in property taxes as a result. “It’s been a long process getting to [this point],” Board member and Associate Provost Chris Winters ’95 said. “It’s been a long process of … iterative compromises that included the very substantial one [regarding land conservation], which is really huge, actually.”
Sarah Gardner, Board member, lecturer in environmental studies and associate director of the Center for Environmental Studies, has long prioritized Waubeeka placing some of its land into conservation restriction as part of any development project. “It is the largest piece of undeveloped land in Williamstown that is developable [not a state park or protected farmland or open space], so people on all sides are extremely emotional about the property,” Gardner said. “It is in a federally designated historic area as well. Our best hope to keep the golf course open, in my opinion, is to put the land into a conservation restriction, which means that the development rights to the property are given up … [resulting] in a much lower tax rate, which makes it more affordable to own the land and to keep the land as a golf course.”
Additionally, Gardner, along with fellow Board member and Professor of Art Elizabeth McGowan, emphasized that the entirety of the Board is invested in ensuring Waubeeka’s continued viability as a business. “We have put a lot of work, and many, many hours into carefully assessing the situation, listening to the developer, listening to the townspeople, and looking at the land (which has riverfront, wetlands and many streams) in order to create a good, healthy bylaw for all,” McGowan said. “It is not a ‘black and white’ or ‘pro or con’ situation but a nuanced one with many variables.” Gardner added that “[the project] is not simple and cannot be simplified into saying anyone is for or against the project.”
Regardless, the Board appears optimistic that it, along with the residents of Williamstown attending the town meeting on May 17, can come up with a solution that will satisfy both the property owner and those living near Waubeeka. In particular, Winters would like to see the Board unanimously back an amendment to the citizen’s petition tonight. “That would send a powerful message to the community that the five of us are behind this. Let’s get a two-thirds vote [at town meeting] to send Waubeeka off in a stronger position so that we can all continue to enjoy it.”