REPORT: PLANNING BOARD AND ZONING SUBCOMMITTEE (11/06/19)

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Zoning Subcommittee Meeting ( 5–6:30 PM)

Pesent: David Levenstein, chair, Maria Chao, Christine Gray-Mullen, and Janet McGowan. Staff: Christine Brestrup, Town Planner.

Unlike previous Zoning Subcommittee meetings, which took the form of round table discussions that included public comment, this meeting was limited to committee members, who discussed proposed changes in zoning to encourage more housing and more affordable housing, with public comments at the end.

Maria Chao and Janet McGowan reviewed the 2015 Amherst Housing Market Study and excerpted suggestions that would be applicable to today’s market. These include:

   * allowing multifamily units by right, allowing greater density;

   * encouraging overlay districts in Amherst center and North Amherst, with preference given to students;

   * increasing density in existing apartment complexes; and

   * enabling accessory dwelling units in single-family neighborhoods. 

The study also recommended more on-campus housing and subsidized housing through inclusionary zoning. Some of these measures have been partially implemented.

McGowan then presented her proposed revision of the Inclusionary Zoning bylaw (section 15.1 of the Zoning Bylaw). 

An expansion of inclusionary zoning was passed by Town Meeting in June 2018, but has not triggered the construction of any affordable units. McGowan’s proposal greatly simplified the existing bylaw by stating that any project resulting in a net increase of six or more dwelling units and requiring any type of special permit needs to provide at least15 percent affordable units by number or space. 

Levenstein cautioned that “inclusionary zoning” is a trigger phrase that might discourage developers from building new housing, and Chao said that the Business Improvement District (BID)  also expressed this worry. 

McGowan responded that this policy has been working well in Cambridge and Newton. Gray-Mullen pointed out, however, that the housing markets there differ from the housing market in Amherst.

Chao shared a detailed draft policy to address the “missing middle” and promotes diversity, equality, sustainability, and opportunity in the housing market. Her draft suggests changing zoning to increase density by allowing multifamily dwellings and “pocket neighborhoods.” Presumably, these would be smaller and more affordable. Time did not permit a detailed discussion. Gray-Mullen suggested considering the elimination of single-family zoning, which has been done in Minneapolis and other cities.

Much of the meeting was spent deciding how to effect the needed changes. The Town Planning staff thinks that most of the zoning bylaw needs to be rewritten, which would be a multiyear project. In the meantime,  future projects would be built under the old bylaw until a new bylaw is adopted. 

All zoning changes need to be confirmed by two-thirds of the Town Council members, after they have been considered by the Community Resources Committee (CRC).  To date, this committee has only met a few times.

A group consisting of Building Commissioner Rob Morro, Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek, CRC chair Mandi-Jo Hanneke, Council President Lynn Griesemer, and Brestrup, of the Planning Department, have met once to discuss zoning changes. Gray-Mullen stated that she would attend future meetings to represent the Planning Board.

Brestrup suggested that the Town prioritize the most needed updating of the bylaw, such as specifying requirements for commercial use and parking in mixed-use buildings. These, along with Inclusionary Zoning, are loopholes in the current Zoning Bylaw that have caused problems. The Zoning Subcommittee agreed to keep working on these. Members seemed to still be unsure of how and when to promote them to Town Council for ratification.

The two members of the public, Dorothy Pam (who is a District 3 councilor) and I (Indy reporter Maura Keene) both stressed the need for enforceable policies that promote more housing and more affordable housing. 

Planning Board

The general Planning Board meeting was called to order at 7:07 p.m., and can be viewed on Amherst Media. All of the above members were present, as well as Jack Jemsek and Administrative Assistant Pamela Field Sadler. Michael Birtwistle was absent. 

After amendment and approval of the minutes from the October 16 and 17 meetings, there were two public hearings.

Public Hearing, Riverside Organics Marijuana Enterprise

Jonathan Gurfein of Riverside Organics presented a detailed plan for a marijuana growing enterprise at 555 Belchertown Road near Valley Medical Center. The existing building on the site would be renovated for processing and a new greenhouse building would be built. The site would be surrounded by a six-foot chain link fence and would have 24-hour security cameras. No toxic chemicals would be used, and water would be recycled as much as possible. The hearing was continued to November 20, pending recommendations from the Fire Department and Conservation Commission. Gurfein has already received input and approval from the Police Department. The operation would be for marijuana only. No extract products would be produced.

Public Hearing, Amherst College Athletic Fields Renovations

Several representatives from Amherst College presented plans for renovating two of the four athletic fields off Northampton Road. Gooding Field, the hockey field, is in the Residential Neighborhood zoning district and thus must obtain Planning Board approval for the work. The College plans to replace the grass there with artificial turf, to provide extra lighting, and to build bleachers for the field. Walking paths would also be improved. Questions about the timing of games and practices, noise level, and parking were answered to the satisfaction of the Board members. There were no public comments, and the proposal was approved unanimously.

Affordable Housing Policy

The proposed affordable housing policy  was again discussed, led by Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust Chair John Hornik. The proposal does not address changes in zoning, and Hornik wants the Planning Board to help with this part of the proposal. He said that the Finance Committee had asked for more data on proposed and existing affordable housing. The Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC) is soliciting proposals for next year’s awards and will not discuss the housing policy until the end of November. Hopefully, the policy can be finalized by early December. Planning Board members requested that its main points be summarized on one page and that the rest of the data be in an appendix.

Other Business

Governor Baker’s proposed Housing Choice Initiative, https://www.mass.gov/housing-choice-designation-and-grants

which proposes creation of 135,000 new units of housing by 2025, was included in the Board packet but not discussed.

Several Planning Board members expressed frustration at getting proposals only one or two days prior to the meeting at which they will discuss and vote on them, and that is insufficient time for review. Levenstein suggested that materials be distributed to Board members a week before the meeting. Staff said that this would be hard for them to do.

Other proposals before the board were a request to combine two nonconforming lots on Summer Street, one of which has a dwelling, into one conforming lot. 

An owner at 321 Lincoln Avenue seeks to rent both of the units in their duplkex though the Zoning Bylaw requires one to be owner-occupied.  The owner seeks to rent both of them and not seel the building. This will come before the Zoning Board of Appeals on November 14. 

The medical marijuana dispensary at 55 University Drive filed for a special permit to add recreational marijuana. 

And the owners of South Point apartments requested an extension of their special permit to add 47 new units, some of which will be affordable. Their permit will otherwise expire before construction starts.

The meeting adjourned at 10:10 p.m.

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