On Wednesday, June 10, the Planning Board and the Community Resources Committee held a public forum to discuss Article 14, a proposed bylaw designed to help businesses in Amherst cope with the impact of COVID-19. All members of both bodies were present, as were Building Commissioner Robert Morra, Planning Director Christine Brestrup, and Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek. Town Manager Paul Bockelman proposed Article 14 several weeks ago and the town officials have been working to pass it quickly.
An addition to Amherst’s existing zoning bylaw, Article 14 would temporarily relax planning and zoning requirements so that three types of business—retail, personal care (hair and nail salons and the like), and food and drink establishments—could expand their operations in ways that will allow for greater social distancing. Under the proposed Article, such businesses could move outside onto the public and private land, as well as into indoor spaces either of their own construction or into existing empty spaces.
Morra said that the permitting process typically takes seventy days, although it can take as long as ninety days. Article 14 would speed this process to ten businesses days. At last Monday’s full Town Council meeting, the council unanimously voted to give the Town Manager more authority to approve use of the public way, which will also expedite the process.
Ziomek introduced the article, saying that it was the Town’s first major attempt to help businesses begin to recover from the loss of revenue due to COVID-19-related closures and service restrictions. He said that the state has just relaxed its alcohol permit requirements, removing one of the previous hurdles to the article by temporarily allowing municipalities to approve short-term outdoor alcohol licensing. Ziomek, Brestrup, and others said throughout the meeting that passing Article 14 might mean life or death for many of our small businesses.
The Question of Public Input
The only issue that came up for debate at the forum was public input. While Article 14 itself is designed to sunset after 180 days unless extended by the Council, some decisions (such as permits granted to new businesses or permanent changes to structures) made under it will not. Councilor Dorothy Pam and Planning Board member Janet McGowan both expressed concern that these decisions could negatively impact abutters and neighbors, even nearby businesses. Article 14 makes no provisions for public input to be part of the process, nor for abutters to be notified.
Morra and Brestrup explained that the town is very adept at issuing permits for the uses that Article 14 will allow and has an excellent track record crafting the permits to control the uses it will allow as well as enforcing violations. The specter of Porta, a restaurant whose permit was rescinded for a multitude of violations not long after it opened, loomed, which Morra said was an unfortunate exception.
Both Pam and McGowan noted how much noise outdoor dining in particular can make, and also expressed concern about making permanent exceptions to zoning requirements that will be hard to undo. When McGowan proposed adding language that would allow for more public input into the process and for easier changes to be made to these permits in the future, her idea received near unanimous condemnation.
Town Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne, who owns a business downtown, said that Amherst risks being emptied of its small businesses if we do not take significant action immediately. She worried that neighboring towns would pass legislation that would draw businesses away unless we pass Article 14. Evan Ross said that he strongly objects to any changes that would slow down the expedited permitting process because business owners need assurance that their investment into expansion-related expenses will not be threatened. Morra pointed out that anyone can appeal a permit once it has been issued and that Design Review would still need to weigh in on any proposed permanent structure.
Rejecting McGowan’s proposal, the CRC and the Planning Board (including McGowan) voted unanimously in favor of recommending that the Town Council pass Article 14. It will come before the council on Monday June 15, where it is likely, under emergency measures, to come up for a vote without a second public reading. If it passes, it can go into effect the following day.