COUNCIL CONSIDERS RAPID DOWNTOWN ZONING CHANGES TO SUPPORT REOPENING, APPROVES FARMERS’ MARKET OPENING ON MAY 30

Outdoor dining in downtown Amherst. Photo: flckr.com

REPORT:TOWN COUNCIL MEETING (5/18/20)

The meeting was held via Zoom webcast and was also broadcast on Amherst Media’s Channel 17. A recording of the meeting can be viewed here. All Councilors were present; Councilor Steven Schreiber arrived late

Highlights:

  • State Representative Mindy Domb and Town Manager Paul Bockelman presented updates on the State response to COVID-19 and the Governor’s phased reopening plans.
  • The Council approved a plan to reopen the Amherst Farmers’ Market on May 30 in a new location (on the Town Common) and with new rules in response to the pandemic.
  • The Council discussed a temporary Zoning Bylaw change that would enable the Town Building Commissioner to fast-track changes to parking, outdoor seating, live entertainment, and the like that would help downtown businesses successfully reopen. There will be a public hearing on the proposal on June 3 or 10.
  • The Council approved new rules for the Community Activity Form and for applications for positions on the Town’s multi-member bodies.
  • The Council heard a report on the review of the Town’s Noise Bylaw.
  • The Council received an update on the budget process.

Announcements
Upcoming Town Council meetings are June 1 and June 15.

Upcoming committee meetings are listed on the Town calendar and will be webcast on Zoom.

Most Districts will hold virtual meetings in the next week on Zoom. District 4 has already held its meeting. District 1 meeting will be May 27 at 6 p.m. District 3 will be May 28 at 7 p.m. and District 5 will be May 28 at 6 p.m.  See the Town Calendar for additional information and Zoom links. Anyone may attend any meeting. 

Public Comment. Amy Zuckerman called attention to a potential housing crisis in Amherst, and that there are few available rentals posted now because few landlords or prospective tenants are interested in  showing/viewing apartments during the pandemic and the current State prohibition of evictions means that landlords cannot guarantee move-in dates. 

Proclamations
Councilor Mandi-Jo Hanneke (at large) introduced a proclamation honoring those from Amherst who fought and gave their lives in the country’s wars, including the first all-black regiment fighting in the Civil War. The proclamation can be found here . It was adopted 12-0 (Schreiber absent). Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) suggested placing the Civil War stones commemorating Amherst residents who fought in the Civil War, which have been  in storage since the Town Hall renovation, on display at a public site. 

Budgets and Reopenings

Report by State Representative Mindy Domb
State Representative Mindy Domb presented an update of proposals in the State Legislature dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commonwealth has passed measures allowing municipalities to meet remotely, allowing remote Notary Public signings, extending the deadline for taxes to July 15, and prohibiting eviction procedures. Because of the delay in tax revenue collection, the Legislature will have to authorize borrowing in order to meet the temporary shortfall. 

Ordinarily, work on the state budget would be well under way now, but because of the pandemic, a one-month budget will be adopted for July, before the budget for the rest of the year is passed. Domb said that the priority for this year’s budget will be maintaining local funding for cities and towns.

Representative Domb stressed her desire to encourage communication with constituents through Facebook, Twitter (@MindyforMA), Instagram (@repmindydomb) and e-news (www.repmindydomb.com) . She invited any constituent who is struggling, or knows of someone who is struggling, to contact her office for help regarding aid, including filling out the forms needed to apply for aid.

Hanneke asked about school openings in the fall and Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1) asked for information about higher education openings, since businesses in Amherst would likely struggle if UMass does not have students on campus. Domb said these issues would not be decided for at least a month and that guidelines for school districts as well as students will be needed before the schools can open.

Reports from Town Manager and Health Director
Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Health Director Julie Federman gave a summary of the Governor’s plan for reopening businesses over the next few weeks. Details can be found here

Four phases of reopening are described. Places of businesses and Town buildings that reopen must have a COVID plan and comply with state safety standards for social distancing and cleaning procedures. Each must also display a poster indicating its compliance with these standards. Local Boards of Health, as well as the inspectors under Building Commissioner Rob Morra will be responsible for enforcement.

The Town will coordinate with other towns regionally regarding beaches because if very few towns open their beaches, they could be overrun by residents from neighboring towns. A group is working on the use of Puffer’s Pond. In addition to beaches, decisions about summer camps and Town swimming pools are under consideration. 

The Business Improvement District and Chamber of Commerce are helping with posters and compliance for businesses. 

With the stability and decline in new pandemic cases in Massachusetts, Bockelman has reduced his noon call-in times to once weekly on Thursdays. Federman will be present at some of the call-ins. The next Cuppa Joe will be on June 5 at 8 a.m. Details and link can be found on the Town Calendar.

Proposal for a Temporary Zoning Bylaw Change
To support successful reopening, Morra has collaborated with Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek and Planning Director Chris Brestrup in a proposal to expedite a temporary zoning bylaw that would allow more outdoor seating for restaurants and streamline approval of new and expanded businesses The process currently takes a minimum of 70 days including the Site Plan review and Special Permits. The proposed bylaw, which would be in effect for 180 days, would allow the Building Commissioner, in consultation with the Planning Director (for new and expanding businesses), the Town Manager (for use of sidewalks and the Board of License Commissioners (for liquor licenses and personal care licenses) to approve permits in as few as 10 days.

Morra and Brestrup would take over the functions of the Design Review Board for signage, outdoor lighting, and outdoor furnishings. It was pointed out that Morra and Brestrup have many years of experience in Town and are very aware of the conditions usually placed on businesses, and that they would make decisions in line with the character of the Town. Liquor licenses are regulated by the State.

Schoen stated that although the zoning change would be temporary for existing businesses, it would amount to a permanent new permit for businesses not already here. Hanneke noted that any zoning change requires a public hearing that is posted two weeks in advance. 

According to the Town attorney, this requirement would not be waived for the proposed temporary bylaw change. The Charter (section 2.10B) allows 60-day emergency measures without public hearings, but this does not apply to zoning changes. Councilor Alisa Brewer (at large) said she doesn’t think a public hearing would add much to the proposal, but Dorothy Pam (District 3) said she thinks some of her constituents will be unhappy if they are not given an opportunity to give input. The Council voted unanimously (13-0) to hold a public hearing that will be part of the upcoming joint Planning Board and Community Resources Committee (CRC) meeting (June 3 or June 10), and to be discussed at the June 15 Council meeting.

Farmers’ Market Opening
There is a plan to open Amherst Farmers’ Market May 30 on the grass of the South Common. This expanded space would permit appropriate social distancing. Rules will be posted requiring the wearing of masks, no touching of produce, and no touching of reusable bags except by the individual patron.

The plan has space for 32 vendors with 10×10-foot tents. Councilor and Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) proposed closing Boltwood Avenue from Spring Street to College Street during the Market to allow for farmers who are older or disabled to park closer to their tents. After a discussion in which the plans were reexamined and Councilor Andy Steinberg (at large) pointed out that there is a steep slope from Boltwood to the Common, which would make moving produce and equipment difficult, Griesemer withdrew the suggestion. The plan for the Farmers’ Market had been approved 5-0 at the Town Services and Operations Committee earlier in the day and was passed by the Council 12-1 (Sarah Swartz, District 1, voting no). 

Preliminary FY 2021 Budget
Councilor Andrew Steinberg (at large) presented a preliminary look at the FY 2021 budget, which was previously discussed at the Three Boards Meeting on May 11 and the Finance Committee on May 12  

Schoen pointed out the proposed $2.5 million reduction in capital spending, which would put the Town far behind its pre-Covid plans regarding capital projects. Brewer objected to any additional spending on Other Public Employee Benefits (OPEB), which covers healthcare benefits for retired employees and pensions for retired teachers, because, she said, there is currently plenty of money in the fund to cover existing obligations. She added that zeroing it out for this year would help the Town address its anticipated budget shortfall. (The proposed budget includes $250,000 for OPEB, reduced from $500,000.) Some councilors suggested giving up their stipends, but the suggestion found little support. The budget guidelines passed 12-1 (with Brewer dissenting). 

Roundabout at South University Drive and Snell Street
The Council reviewed a plan by developer Barry Roberts to create a roundabout at the intersection of South University Drive and Snell Street in conjunction with his proposal for a mixed-use building on South University Drive. The three-story project would have 45 residential units and 2 commercial spaces, with 5 affordable units. The proposal was approved at the February 18 Planning Board meeting and referred to the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

The roundabout would be an adjustment to the public way, so was referred to the TSO Committee, to be returned with a brief presentation and discussion at the June 1 Town Council Meeting.

Community Activity Forms
The meeting proceeded with a lengthy discussion of the proposal by the Outreach, Communication and Appointments Committee (OCA) to revise the Community Activity Form (CAF) for applicants for appointment to the Finance Committee, Planning Board, and Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). (The CAF is the application form used by residents to apply for all positions on Town boards and committees.)

The Committee had voted to adopt a very abbreviated form, asking for only the applicant’s name, address, and the board(s) of interest. It is described in an appendix to the committee report .

The CAFs would be kept for three years. If a vacancy on the desired board were to open up, all residents who had expressed interest during the previous three years would be contacted to see whether they are still interested in the position. If they were still interested, they would be required to submit a Statement of Interest (SOI), which would be made public, and to participate in a group interview, which would be public. (The SOI is a one-page document that describes the applicant’s skills and experiences that are relevant to the multi-member body to which they seek to be appointed.) The SOIs must be posted (it was not stated where) at least one week prior to an applicant’s scheduled interview. 

OCA member Darcy DuMont (District 5) objected to the abbreviated CAF form, noting that it would be difficult to determine whether or not the applicant pool is sufficient to meet minimal diversity and demographic criteria, considering the minimal information that would be provided. She recommended a statement on the CAF saying that it is a public document. Schoen recommended a statement on the CAF about the requirement to fill out a SOI when applying for a position. These motions were defeated 11-2 (DuMont and Schoen dissenting). The new CAF will be in effect for appointments to the Planning Board next month. 

Noise Bylaw Review
Councilor George Ryan (District 3), Chair of the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee(GOL), presented GOL’s review of the current  Noise Bylaw.

Hanneke had requested that the clause prohibiting the use of power lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and snowmobiles and other similar mechanical devices between the hours of 11PM and 7 AM be eliminated (Zoning Bylaw 3.24.A.4). GOL members agreed with this suggestion, but felt the bylaw as a whole should be referred to the Community Resources Committee because it affects the local economy — housing and livability in general — and thus is beyond the scope of GOL. Residents of South Amherst have also expressed concern about gun noise. Pam said that she would like the ban on two-stroke leaf blowers to continue because they are especially polluting. The councilors voted unanimously to refer the bylaw to CRC. 

Approval of minutes was moved to the June 1 meeting. The Town Manager’s report with the preliminary guidelines for reopening is in the packet for the meeting. Schoen asked when committees could begin meeting remotely. Specifically, the Transportation Advisory Committee has requested the ability to meet. Bockelman stated that the IT department is working at making committee meetings possible in June.

The meeting adjourned at 11:15 p.m.

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