Back-and-forth continues on three-person rule

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August 19, 2009

8:44 PM

The Williamsburg Planning Commission will hold at least one and possibly more work sessions to hear public comment on a proposal to alter three-person rule — although several commissioners seemed against any changes.

The commission voted Wednesday to hold a work session one week after their scheduled September meeting, where they will discuss a draft change sent to them by City Council earlier this month.

The proposal was developed from the final report of a focus group, made up of students, homeowners and others, that met multiple times earlier this year.

Williamsburg Deputy Planning Director Carolyn Murphy first outlined the draft proposal as forwarded by the City Council. The Flat Hat previously outlined the proposal here.

Murphy noted that, in the city, there are approximately 562 four-bedroom houses, 57 five-bedroom houses and a dozen houses with more than five bedrooms. Many of those, she noted, would not be eligible under the draft proposal due to square footage, parking space or other problems — and of course, many of those houses are owned, not rented out.

“Is there a tangible threat to even talking about this in terms of how it would impact the neighborhood?” commission Chairman Douglas Pons asked.

The Planning Commission asked the staff to prepare thorough statistics on the number of houses that could be eligible under the draft proposal for its September meeting.

Several commissioners voiced doubts about allowing four unrelated people to live together.

Commissioner Jim Joseph seemed concerned that the community be given ample opportunity to speak.

“We need the participation, yet when the opportunity comes the participation’s not there, and therefore we have to stress that,” he said. “This is a very sensitive issue with a lot of feelings on both sides, and I think we just have to push that as hard as we can to make sure people do participate.”

Commissioner Greg Ballentine said that the proposal should not be called a proposal, arguing that it is merely a basis for discussion. A proposal, he said, denotes a finality that could wrongfully indicate to residents that the situation is decided.

“If it’s a discussion draft then I think everything’s on the table, including whether this applies to a three-person rule, or do we go to a two-person rule,” he said. “So when we get to the discussion of it, I think it’s open to everybody to speak to the issue generally and not necessarily this so-called proposal, which is not a proposal.”

Ballentine was the only commissioner to explicitly announce his disapproval of any four-person rule.

“Whether we go to four or not — and I hope not — we ought to look at the three-person rule very carefully,” he said.

Commissioner Jim Joseph noted his fear that the illusion of finality could provoke residents. Joseph was concerned that city residents would misinterpret the proposal, thinking it a final product when in fact it is still highly plastic.

“If we have a public hearing next September, and the image is that we set up this whole stage to go from three to four people, we’ll have everybody and his uncle at that meeting opening up old wounds which I don’t think we want to open up,” Joseph said. “When I say old wounds I mean there’s a lot of people behind the scenes trying to foster good relationship between the school and the town, and if we have a session like we had three or four years ago, where somebody got up and said the students were a cancer to the city and all that stuff, a lot of what’s been gained is going to be lost.”

Joseph was referring to the May 5, 2003, City Council meeting, at which David Krahnbuel, a Harrison Avenue resident and a chemistry professor at the College of William and Mary, called student renters in his community a “cancer.”

Commissioner Elaine McBeth was the first to propose the commission not hold a public hearing at it’s next meeting, noting that, while the commission could hold off on a vote and continue the hearing the next month, they would also have the ability to vote after just one meeting.

The commission ultimately decided to discuss the proposal as old business at its September meeting and hold at least one work session, and more if necessary, one week after that.

The commission’s work session, at which residents can voice their opinions, will be held Wednesday, Sept. 23, from 4 to 6 p.m.

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