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Town meeting loosens apartment size restriction

Recorder/Beth Reynolds
Moderator Raymond Godin answers questions from residents during the annual town meeting at Turners Falls High School on Saturday.

Recorder/Beth Reynolds Moderator Raymond Godin answers questions from residents during the annual town meeting at Turners Falls High School on Saturday.

MONTAGUE — Smaller apartment sizes will be allowed in town, after voters at Saturday’s annual town meeting approved a bylaw change reducing the minimum area, a decision with implications for housing and an ongoing lawsuit.

The question of apartment size arose during the permitting process for Mark Zaccheo’s proposed redevelopment of the former Montague Center School into 22 apartments. The zoning Board of Appeals granted Zaccheo a variance from the minimum size of 700 square feet for some of the proposed apartments.

A group of abutters has appealed that decision, as well as two accompanying special permits, with a lawsuit.

The bylaw change reduces the minimum floor area from 700 to 500 square feet, limits the minimum to multi-family dwellings, and makes exceptions possible via a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Proponents argued the current bylaw restricts affordable single-bedroom housing, driving up prices in the real estate market and threatening open space by driving up demand for new home construction.

Opponents argued the issue could wait until the lawsuit is resolved, that higher-density housing will threaten the town’s rural character and that decisions should be made on a village-by-village basis.

Town Planner Walter Ramsey said it is unusual for towns to regulate interior space and his initial recommendation had been to erase the minimum, but there was a lot of concern expressed during the hearing process about the possibility of “micro-apartments,” and the 500-square-foot minimum represents a reasonable one-bedroom apartment size.

“We thought this was a good half-way point,” said Planning Board member Frederic Bowman.

Proponents said there is growing demand fro one-bedroom apartments and Inspector of Buildings David Jensen said 700 square feet is typical for a two-bedroom apartment. “Essentially, we’re forbidding one-bedroom apartments,” he said.

Jensen and Ramsey said the bylaw has been an issue for some time, and Ramsey said there are compelling demographic reasons to change it as more people choose to live alone and households shrink.

Ramsey said 12 percent of Montague’s population is over 65 and living alone, 33 percent overall, and demand for single-bedroom housing puts pressure on prices and land.

Under the former bylaw the minimum applied to all homes, contrary to state law according to Ramsey, and the new blyaw complies by excluding single and two-family homes.

Several town meeting members questioned the timing of the change.

Ramsey said the old bylaw was unfair, inadequate and needed to be changed, and the Planning Board is obliged to fix broken zoning laws.

“We’re faced with defending a lawsuit that the town is not particularly interested in defending on its principles,” Jensen said.

Ramsey said it is entirely legal for town meeting to amend the bylaws, regardless of appeals, and the change would not nullify the lawsuit, which appeals two special permits as well as the size variance.

Precinct 1 town meeting member Kathleen Burek said she thought people would like to rent 700-square-foot single-bedroom apartments. “We live in a beautiful, rural town,” Burek said. “Let’s attract people to that beauty.”

Robin Sherman, executive director of the Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority, repeated her testimony from the public hearing process that the minimum restricts the availability of housing for seniors on a fixed income, students, young couples and veterans utilizing housing vouchers.

“I know there are a lot of concerns about students,” Sherman said, adding “Education is what makes our economy run here in this region of the state.”

The bylaw change required a two-thirds majority vote and passed 63—13 on a standing count.

Most items on the agendas for Saturday’s consecutive special and regular town meetings passed unanimously, including the school assessments, $731,659 for the Franklin County Technical School and $7,965,557 for the Gill-Montague Regional School District.

All articles passed, some with amendments.

The only article to fail, Article 2 on the special meeting warrant, would have restored demolition to the list of options for spending money appropriated last year for the former Cumberland Farms building at 38 Avenue A. The Montague Economic Development and Industrial Corporation, a town proxy, owns the building and requested the article. Voters last year appropriated $32,000 as a safety net for negotiations between the EDIC and local-access cable nonprofit Montague Community Cable, Inc.

Donald Valley of the EDIC said negotiations were still under way and might be concluded by the end of June, but if the deal falls through or is rejected by the Department of Conservation and Recreation the EDIC feels it is not worth salvaging the building — continuing to mold after last fall’s roof patch failed — and the board would like the flexibility to move without returning to town meeting.

Town meeting member David Detmold questioned the time it has taken to reach a deal and said the need to return to town meeting might keep EDIC’s feet to the fire.

The article failed 45-37.

Among the articles approved:

∎ $50,000 from stabilization for a one-ton dump truck to replace the DPW 2001 model.

∎ $95,000 from stabilization to purchase and equip a replacement bucket truck for the DPW.

∎ Transfer of $46,460 for the purpose of pre-development and permitting of the Turnpike Road Energy-Industrial Park.

■ $1,750 to install surveillance cameras at Unity Park.

■ $88,088 for operations, maintenance and debt service of the Colle Building.

■ $42,000 for the Turners Falls Airport budget.

■ $8,000 to replace windows at the Unity Park field house.

■ $20,000 for police equipment and repairs.

■ Authority for the Board of Selectmen to purchase or otherwise acquire easements in certain parcels of land along Greenfield Road for road improvements.

■ An article petitioning Baystate Health Systems to commit all necessary resources to Baystate Franklin Medical Center, on the warrant by petition.

■ $25,000 to supplement the Police Department budget for the current fiscal year.

∎ Creation of a committee to study broadband access town-wide, amended from a motion to study broadband access in under-served areas.

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