WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. – Town meeting voters were advised on Wednesday to approve a zoning change to allow a developer to put a hotel of up to 50,000 square feet (roughly 50 individual rooms) alongside the Waubeeka Golf Links.
The Planning Board split 3-2 to make the recommendation, establishing the square-foot limit on the hotel, as they sought to deal with course owner Michael Deep's threat that he will otherwise close the scenic 18-hole public golf course and seek to build affordable housing there.
Its members did so after the developer’s attorney, Stanley Parese, refused to offer any specific size limitation his client would accept. In addition, Parese began a meeting of the planning board by declaring his client would move for a vote at town meeting to approve a building of unlimited size and rooms on 10 acres – no matter what the Planning Board recommended.
As a result, the town’s voters for now are faced with attending a May 17 town meeting with conflicting advice from the developer and the town’s elected planning board on how to deal with Deep’s threat to close the 207-acre golf course and terminate its approximately 40 employees.
Deep wants to be free to pitch to developers a building of any size on 10 acres; the planning board majority wants a cap at about 50,000 square feet. Deep purchased the course for $1.2 million about two years ago. The South Williamstown parcel has been cited by a state report as one of the most scenic areas in Massachusetts because of its expansive views of the 3,491-foot Mount Greylock, the state’s highest peak. It lies at the intersection of two major entries to Williamstown -– state Route 43 and U.S. Route 7.
The language recommended by the 3-2 vote would allow a developer to increase total buildings on the 207-acre site to 60,000 square feet by setting aside 40 acres under a perpetual conservation restriction. That would be in addition to 67 acres which must be put in conservation restriction to do any hotel development on a 10-acre parcel near Route 7 and the Five Corners. There is already about 10,000 square feet of golf buildings on the site, so the hotel would be capped at roughly 50,000 square feet.
The size restriction is important to Deep, because he has said he will seek an experienced developer to finance and build the hotel and he is concerned about presenting a town-approval with size flexibility. But the planning-board majority, in turn, does not trust that the result would be a hotel that is economically viable yet not oversized for the viewshed.
Some of the discussion at Wednesday's meeting was contentious and at some points personal, as the planning board settled into a familiar pattern of 3-2 advocacy, with Sarah Gardner, Elizabeth McGowan and Ann K. McCallum voting in favor of the size-limited hotel and D. Chris Winters and Amy C. Jeschawitz voting against it (because they wanted no size limitation).
For example, at one point Winters said a size limit on the building would “kill an economically viable opportunity for the site . . . and I think that was the intention from day one.” At that point and later, each of the three planners voting for the 50,000 square-foot restriction refuted his statement, saying they have consistently supported a hotel of some size as part of a plan to keep the golf course open and support open space. The board majority have argued for more information from Deep in order to assess the balance between a viable size and the affect on the views and environment at the town’s key gateway.
“There is not a number that I am going to utter,” Parese said. He said it is too early to assess what size is needed. “The square footage ends up being an artificial impediment” to that process, he said.
Going into Wednesday’s meeting, planners had hoped to reach a 5-0 consensus on some recommendation to voters on how to deal with a “Citizens Petition” to switch zoning of the golf course from 2.5-acre residential lots. The petition, if adopted by a two-thirds majority of those voting at town meeting, would allow for a “country inn” containing “guest units without kitchens.” That language would appear to permit multiple-room suites and non-kitchen cooking facilities typically found in fractional or time-share facilities. However, last week, Deep’s attorney said earlier language citing time-share ownership had been withdrawn.
Debates on Wednesday ranged across such issues as whether:
- The language adopted by the three-vote majority represented a compromise.
- The planning board, in seeking a site limit, was doing work that should be left to the zoning board during special permitting hearings.
- A 50,000-square-foot hotel is large enough to be financially viable.
- The board’s consideration of a zoning change for Williams College to build a 100-room hotel on Spring Street has been more deferential than treatment afforded Deep’s Waubeeka plan.
- It is possible to find a balance between economic development and perpetual open-space protection.
Among key points of testimony or statements by board members:
- It would be a “significant disaster” to vote down the project, said developer and Finance Committee member Charles Fox. The FinCom is slated to hear Deep’s economic arguments for the project at a meeting on Monday, May 9, the day before a May 10 local election to, among other things, choose two members of the planning board.
- Selectman Hugh Daley said he thought a hotel of 120 rooms on 10 acres would be a “good plan.” He called it fair and reasonable.
- “A compromise is not a compromise if it kills this proposal,” said former school principal and former selectman David Rempell. He said it would be “mind boggling” if the planning board did not recommend the hotel project.
- The 50,000-square-foot building limit “is in fact a real compromise . . that will create a reasonably sized hotel,” said attorney Sherwood Guernsey, who lives alongside the golf course. “The beauty of the town is a major economic driver.”
- “There is enough concern about building size that the metric [square footage] matters,” said Selectman Andrew Hogeland. A less-than-unanimous vote will “feed the narrative” that the project should be reworked, he added.
- “I think this process is flawed and . . . at some levels I am embarrassed,” said Selectman Jane Patten. She had urged the Planning Board not to put a size restriction on the hotel building other than 120 "guest units."
- "This whole process has practically been run by the developer and his lawyer," said South Williamstown resident Susan Schneski. "I just think the tail has been wagging the dog."