OPINION: TOWN COUNCIL FOR NOOBS – ARTICLE 14 BRINGS COVID RELIEF FOR LOCAL BUSINESSES

REGULAR TOWN COUNCIL MEETING OF (6/15/20)

At Monday’s regular Town Council meeting, Town Council passed Article 14, a temporary addition to Amherst’s Zoning Bylaw designed to help local businesses mitigate revenue losses due to the COVID-19 emergency. Town Manager Paul Bockelman proposed the article several weeks ago, and town staff and the Town Council have been working diligently to adopt it. Its passage will be a lifeline to many businesses in town that are holding on by a thread.

Article 14 is designed to expedite the mandatory permitting process required for three types of business establishments: food and drink, personal care, and retail. When a new business wants to open or an existing business wants to expand, they previously had to go through the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) or the Planning Board, and possibly other boards, including Design Review or Board of License Commissioners, before they would be issued a permit to operate. Building Commissioner Robert Morra said that this typically took seventy to ninety days. Under Article 14, this process has been streamlined to ten business days by making Morra and Planning Director Christine Brestrup the sole authorities approving permit requests.

Although non-essential businesses have begun reopening in Massachusetts, state guidelines are mandating reduced numbers of patrons to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Article 14’s shortened timeline will allow existing businesses to expand their capacity either by moving outside, while the weather is still warm, or into other unused spaces, and will potentially encourage new businesses to open. Input from the Design Review Board will be sought only for permanent changes in the downtown area.

As Article 14 has made its way through the legislative process, board members and councilors have raised several concerns. These have centered on the lack of public input into the expedited permitting process, as well as the fear that granting permits too quickly will lead to unintended and potentially irrevocable consequences. 

Given the lack of public hearings or input from public boards, there will necessarily be less public input in the permitting process under Article 14. Abutters will not be notified as they currently are. Morra explained that the only recourse members of the public will have to contest decisions that he and Brestrup make will be after the fact, by filing an appeal. Morra pointed out that the Town does not currently revoke permits, nor has it for quite a while. Businesses will still be required to follow zoning laws and to submit a management plan as part of the permitting process. They will still be required to update their plan in light of complaints. Morra and Brestrup assured the Council that their decisions would be in the best interests of the Town.

Article 14 will sunset in 180 days, and the authority to grant business permits will revert to the ZBA and Planning Board. Morra and Brestrup could set expiration dates on permits issued under Article 14, but Morra said that for permanent changes this is not typically done because businesses need certainty in order to invest in capital expansion. Councilors Cathy Schoen (District 1) and Lynn Griesemer (District 2) said that the faster process developed under Article 14 might make Amherst appear to be more business friendly, and could have useful lessons for the Town moving forward. Darcy DuMont (District 5) expressed dismay that this could be the first step in decreasing oversight in the permitting process. Brestrup said that this bylaw will end in 180 days. In order to continue the rapid approval process, a permanent bylaw change would be necessary.  Morra said he would be happy to come back before the Council in 180 days to issue a report on how Article 14 had functioned.

Dissenting votes were cast by  DuMont, who voted “no,” saying said she didn’t realize that changes made under Article 14 could become permanent, and Dorothy Pam (District 3), who had expressed reservations about the lack of recourse for abutters and those who live near downtown, and thus abstained.

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