PLANNING BOARD RECOMMENDS NEW PROCESS FOR CHANGING ZONING BYLAWS

Photo:picpedia.org

REPORT ON PLANNING BOARD MEETING (6/3/20)

The meeting was held via Zoom webcast and was recorded for possible future broadcast. 

Participating
Planning Board Members: Christine Gray-Mullen (Chair), Michael Birtwistle, Maria Chao, Jack Jemsek, Janet McGowan, David Levenstein, and Doug Marshall

Town Staff: Christine Brestrup (Town Planner) and Pamela Field-Sadler (Administrative Assistant)

Town Councilors from the Community Resources Committee (CRC): Mandi-Jo Hanneke (CRC chair, Councilor At-large), Shalini Bahl Milne (District 5), Steve Schreiber (District 4), Evan Ross (District 4), and Sarah Swartz (District 1)

Public Comment
No public comment was offered.

Public Hearing
A public hearing was held for a Site Plan Review for All About Learning Childcare Center’s request to expand the play area behind its facility at 7 Pomeroy Lane. The center currently occupies Units 4 and 5 of the seven-unit strip mall and plans to expand with the addition of Units 1 through 3. The enlarged play area will be behind the added units and will follow the design approved for the original area in 2016. Attorney Alan Sharpe and owners Dwight Scott and Judy Wilder presented the plans. The Fire Department wanted the installation of gates that open in both directions between the two areas. Two air conditioners will need to be covered. The area will be lit from dusk to 2 a.m. because of an alleyway behind the property. The plan was approved unanimously.

The Common School on 521 South Pleasant Street presented a plan to repave its driveway and to pave the nearby gravel traffic circle and an emergency drive on the north side of the school. Architect Michael Liu of Berkshire Design Group presented the plans, which have been approved by the Conservation Commission. Liu stated that the current pavement is cracked and rutted, and the gravel traffic circle is confusing for those dropping off children and results in dirt being tracked into the school. Marked parking spaces will be added to the circle to aid traffic flow. A rain garden will be constructed around the retention pond in the center of the circle. Fire Safety Officer Michael Roy approved the plan for the emergency drive, which is now almost impassable. Trash dumpsters will be moved from the entry to the emergency drive.

The plan received favorable comments, but Liu noted that late in the planning, he discovered a deed restriction with the Town which requires that pavement coverage on the property be limited to 25 percent. (In the rest of this zoning district, the Zoning Bylaw specifies a limit of 30 percent.) The proposed plan had 26.7 percent pavement, which was more than 5,000 square feet too much. Liu proposed replacing some of the pavement, especially at the periphery of the circle and on the north drive, with permeable pavers. If these were counted as 50 percent unpaved, the total paved area would be 24.9 percent. Doug Marshall pointed out that the deed restriction states that 75 percent of the property has to be capable of supporting plant growth, and the permeable pavers do not fulfill this requirement. The Board voted unanimously to continue the hearing until July 1 at 6:35 p.m. to give the applicant more time to develop a compliant plan.

Zoning Bylaw Changes
The Planning Board then joined with the Community Resources Committee (CRC) to discuss a process for developing and approving Zoning Bylaw changes. At-large Town Councilor and CRC Chair Mandi-Jo Hanneke presented a flow chart, revised from its original presentation on March11. 

Proposed flow chart for zoning bylaw amendments. Photo: amherstma.gov

The chart shows proposed Zoning Bylaw changes originating with the Council, Planning Board, Town Staff, or public petition, then being discussed at both the Planning Board and CRC, followed by a joint public hearing or separate public hearings of the Planning Board and the CRC. After the hearing(s) and approval by the Planning Board and CRC, the bylaw change would be reviewed by the Town Attorney and presented to the full Council for a vote.

There was considerable discussion about this proposed process. Planning Board member Janet McGowan suggested that public input be sought earlier in the process. Member Michael Birtwistle called the proposal complicated and cumbersome, and said it reduces the role of the Planning Board. He feels Zoning Bylaw changes should be made by the Planning Board and then presented to the Council to accept, reject, or amend. Member Maria Chao said that the Planning Board has been holding off on Zoning Bylaw changes until the Council indicates that it is ready to receive them. Now that the CRC is designated to discuss zoning, she feels the proposed process is a step in the right direction and should be tried out for a few changes. Jack Jemsek agreed.

Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) said that this plan would ease some of the work of the Planning Board; McGowan responded that this is what the Planning Board does. She also expressed concern about proposals getting hung up in the process. She felt the Planning Board should do its job prior to turning proposed changes to the Town Council and CRC. She pointed out that the CRC is already overburdened, and that this flow chart has been 11 months in the making. However, Hanneke pointed out that many of CRC‘s tasks have now been transferred to a new committee of the Town Council, the Town Services and Outreach Committee, so it can concentrate on zoning, planning, and economic development. Marshall stated that it makes sense to have early buy-in from the body that ultimately has to approve the bylaw changes. Planning Board member David Levenstein liked the fact that a time frame is spelled out, so votes cannot be postponed for a long time. 

The Planning Board voted 5-2 (Birtwistle and McGowan voting against) to approve the proposed process. The CRC councilors voted unanimously in favor. It will be presented at the next Council meeting.

Temporary Bylaw Change to Fast Track Changes in Support of Reopening Businesses
The Planning Board discussed the proposed temporary change to Article 14 of the Zoning Bylaw; the change would permit businesses to expand their outdoor activities, including live entertainment and alcohol service, in order to promote their recovery after the shutdown for the pandemic. These changes would be approved by Building Commissioner Rob Morra after consultation with Brestrup and the Town Manager or other relevant Town officials. Rulings would be given in 10 days and be in effect for 180 days. McGowan submitted several suggestions for changes, such as increasing the approval time to 15 days and notifying abutters when the application is submitted.  There was not enough time to discuss these changes and they will be raised again at the public hearing.  There will be a joint public hearing with the CRC on this matter on June 10.

Proposed Amendment to Change Site Plan Review Process
Hanneke introduced a Zoning Bylaw amendment to change the number of Planning Board votes for Site Plan Review approval from a two-thirds vote (i.e. five of the seven members) to a simple majority.  Hanneke argued that this should have been changed when the Charter decreased the size of the Planning Board from nine members to seven. Special Permits would still need a two-thirds vote for approval. This matter had been slated to be presented at the March Planning Board meeting that was canceled because of the pandemic. It had previously been discussed by the Zoning Subcommittee. A public hearing on the Zoning Bylaw change will be held on June 17 in a joint meeting of the Planning Board and the CRC.

The meeting adjourned at 10:20 p.m.

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