OPINION: TOWN COUNCIL FOR NOOBS – THE PUBLIC WAY

REGULAR TOWN COUNCIL MEETING (6/1/20)

The issue of the public way, an official term meaning all of the town’s public roads, sidewalks and parking areas, came before the Town Council at Monday’s regular meeting. As per the Town Charter, the Council controls and regulates Amherst’s public way, although it already delegates some of this authority to Town staff, although numerous issues still come before it for a vote, as was the case on Monday. The use of the public way also affects Article 14, a newly proposed change to Amherst’s zoning bylaw that would help businesses around town cope with the fallout from COVID-19.

Petitioners for use of the public way are often bounced between committees before their request comes before the Council for a vote. The Council has been working on streamlining this process by delegating more authority over the public way to the Town Manager, who currently approves all short-term, temporary uses of the public way. 

At Monday’s meeting, Councilors discussed having new longterm public-way use requests and permanent changes to the public way get automatically referred to the Town Services and Outreach Committee, saving petitioners the step of having to go to the full Council first. While this would mean a speedier application process for developers, it would also mean that projects get less public airing outside of committee meetings. The Council deferred action on this issue until a later date. 

The Public Way and Two New Building Projects
Two new building projects whose developers want to make permanent changes to the public way, came before the Council at Monday’s meeting. Each will significantly alter the public way abutting their proposed sites, which is not unusual for new development.

Amir Mikchi is developing the South East Street Common on South East Street. Sited on the west side of the road just south of the Florence Savings Bank, the project is slated to include 57 studio apartments, 1,200 square feet of retail space, and 65 parking spaces. Mikchi was asking the Council for permission to widen the street (so that it can accommodate bicycle lanes) and add a sidewalk, a bus stop, a paved public patio, and other niceties, none of which currently exist. He has agreed to maintain these improvements all at his own expense.

When Councilor Dorothy Pam expressed concern that the Town had previous ceded use of the public way to developers whose projects downtown have had a negative impact on street life, Evan Ross pushed back, remarking that the developer of the South East Street Project was providing a host of new amenities to the Town at no cost to the public. Ross described such improvements to the public way as “value added.” The Council agreed, unanimously approving Mikchi’s request.

The other project, which is being developed by Barry Roberts, is located on the corner of south University Drive and Route 9 where it intersects with Snell Street at the abandoned extension of Route 116. According to a review by the Zoning Board of Appeals, the mixed-use project is limited to 45 units, at least 5 of which will be affordable under state guidelines. The development will include onsite parking for residents and shoppers. Roberts was requesting permission to build a roundabout along University Drive with adjacent parking and delivery areas, as well as adding additional public parking and a sidewalk. The Council unanimously approved Robert’s request.

The Public Way and COVID-19 Relief
Town Manager Paul Bockelman recently proposed Article 14, a change to Amherst’s zoning bylaw designed to mitigate the loss of local revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Article 14 would allow businesses to temporarily expand their capacity by moving outside to new areas during the warm weather, and would sunset after 180 days unless the Council extends it. 

When restaurants re-open for indoor dining, state guidelines are likely to impose restrictions on the number of patrons, as retail stores are now required to do. Under Article 14, business owners could apply to the town for the temporary use of additional outdoor space beyond what is currently permitted and receive an answer within 10 business days. This would allow restaurants to expand their dining options and stores to move their displays outside. Such uses are likely to include public, as well as private, sidewalks and parking areas. 

The Town Manager would have authority over these requests. The Council seems eager to pass Article 14 and voted in favor of changing their public way policy to give the Town Manager this authority. Darcy Dumont was the lone dissenting voice, expressing concern that Article 14 has not yet been given adequate public hearing, especially among people with disabilities. 

Article 14 will be discussed further at the next Planning Board meeting on June 10 at 6:30, then at the regular Council meeting on June 15, where it is likely to come up for a vote. The Town is now taking applications for outdoor table service as currently permitted, and has pledged to expedite this process. 

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