PLANNING BOARD ENDORSES RULE CHANGE FOR SITE PLAN REVIEW. RECOMMENDS SUPPORTIVE HOUSING PROPOSAL TO ZBA

Architects rendering of the proposed supportive housing project at 132 Northampton Road. Photo: amherstma.gov

REPORT: PLANNING BOARD MEETING OF 6/17/20

This joint meeting of the Planning Board and the Community Resources Committee(CRC) was held via Zoom webcast and was recorded and can be viewed here.

Participating

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

Town Planning Department: Christine Brestrup (Town Planner), Pam Field-Sadler (Administrative Assistant)

Town Council Community Resource Committee (CRC) Members: Mandi Jo Hanneke (Chair, At-large), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), Evan Ross (District 4), Steve Schreiber (District 4), Sarah Swartz (District 1).

Amendment to Site Plan Review Bylaw
The meeting began with a joint hearing with the Community Resources Committee of the Town Council about a proposed amendment to Zoning Bylaw Article 11, Section 11.2, Subsection 11.25. The article concerns the number of Planning Board members needed to approve a Site Plan Review. Currently a two-thirds vote, with a minimum of five affirmative votes, is needed. The proposed amendment specifies a simple majority of those present. Since there are currently seven members on the Planning Board, and four constitute a quorum, a site plan review could be approved with only three votes if four or five Board members were present.

Brestrup explained the difference between a Special Permit, which would continue to require a two-thirds vote, and a Site Plan Review. 

Special Permit is used for projects that do not conform to the Zoning Bylaw. For example, a Special Permit may give a permit to a project that wouldn’t normally be allowed because of its location or size. 

Site Plan Review is used for projects that conform to the Zoning Bylaw. The Planning Board reviews the plan to see whether it adheres to details of the Zoning Bylaw including regulations of parking, lighting, landscaping, traffic, and design.

Massachusetts General Law Chapter 40A specifies what constitutes a Special Permit, but does not mention Site Plan Reviews. Site Plan Review was established by Town Meeting in 1988. Prior to that, the Town Manager and Building Commissioner were responsible for approval of most plans that conformed to the Zoning Bylaw. A Site Plan Review includes notification of abutters and a public hearing, and specifies that two-thirds of the Planning Board must approve the project. In 2018, when the system of Town government changed, the Planning Board was reduced from nine to seven members, so two-thirds of the full Board was reduced to five. In January 2019, the Zoning Subcommittee of the Planning Board began to consider decreasing the required votes from five to a majority of those present, which is standard in some cities and towns, including Northampton, Sturbridge, Ayer, and Cambridge. The Planning Board had hoped to present a proposed revision to the Town Council in June, 2019, but was told that the Council had too many other pressing matters to take up zoning questions at that time. The CRC was formed later and took up the proposal.

During extensive discussion at the June 17 hearing, Planning Board member Birtwistle asked, “what problem is the amendment trying to solve?” and said that he could not remember a time when a Site Plan Review had more than one vote in opposition. He also said that the current bylaw means that the Board and the developer have to come to a consensus, which usually leads to a better project. Planning Board Chair Gray-Mullen and CRC Chair Hanneke argued that without this amendment, the Town might be sued, citing a ruling in Osberg v. Planning Board of Sturbridge, which, they said, means that only a majority was necessary to pass Sturbridge’s Site Plan Review. Planning Board member McGowan corrected them, explaining that the ruling actually said that a Site Plan Review can be passed with a majority but did not specify it as a standard.

CRC member and former Planning Board member Schreiber pointed out that sometimes it is difficult to get five members eligible to vote at a Planning Board meeting.  If someone has missed part of a hearing for a Site Plan Review and had not watched the tape of that meeting, or, if they  had to recuse themselves due to a conflict of interest, they might not be able to vote. He felt that in a democracy, a simple majority of those who attend the meeting should determine whether the permit is given or not.

Birtwistle made an amendment to the proposal, stating that a minimum of four votes would be required to approve a site plan review. Brestrup also said that she is uncomfortable with the idea that only three members could approve a project. She favored Birtwistle’s amendment. However, this amendment was defeated 2-5-0 by the Planning Board (Birtwistle and McGowan voting yes, and Gray-Mullen, Chao, Jemsek, Levenstein, Marshall, voting no) and 1-4-0 by the CRC councilors (Swartz voting yes, and Hanneke, DeAngelis, Pam, Schreiber, Steinberg voting no). 

The amendment requiring a simple majority of members present to approve a project based on a Site Plan Review passed 5-2 (Planning Board), 4-1 (CRC), consistent with the votes regarding Birtwistle’s motion to require at least four members to approve a plan. 

Public Hearing on Supportive Housing at 132 Northampton Road
The Planning Board then heard a presentation by Valley Community Development Corporation (Valley CDC) on the proposed supportive studio apartments planned for 132 Northampton Road. This had been presented to the Affordable Housing Trust last week and will be brought before the Zoning Board of Appeals on June 25. Laura Baker, the project manager for Valley CDC, landscape architect Rachel Loefler, and architect Tom Chalmers gave the presentation. 

Planning Board members commented favorably on the revised design. Maria Chao was impressed that it meets the Passive House Standards for energy efficiency, and thought it is “a great fit” for the neighborhood. In response to McGowan’s question as to what would happen if a resident became pregnant or was reunited with children, Baker replied that most units would not meet Board of Health standards for size necessary to accommodate more than one person. In the past, in such situations, Valley CDC has worked with the resident to find more suitable housing.

In public comment, Katharine Sims, who lives in the neighborhood, said she is concerned that the small, covered smoking area is near the Pratt Field parking lot and is too close to the track, so smoke may negatively impact those parking for Amherst College football games or exercising on the track. She also said that there is a greater need in the state for family housing than for housing for single adults, and asked why this project is geared exclusively for single adults. Baker said that the smoking area is about 35 feet from the parking lot and track, and would be shielded by trees. She said that Valley CDC has found that when projects are built without a smoking area, residents end up going out to the sidewalk to smoke. She also said that when a similar project being completed in Northampton with 31 studio apartments asked for applications, Valley CDC received 250 qualified applicants, 153 who stated they were homeless, so the need for this kind of housing is apparent. 

The Planning Board voted 7-0 to recommend support of the project to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Report on CPAC
Birtwistle referred to the controversy over the $1 million of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds that had been tentatively slated to go to the Jones Library to build a room to store the historical collection in the proposed demolition/renovation/expansion project. This had been placed on the projected awards list by a straw vote in early March, but a final vote has not been taken due to the pandemic. Several members of the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC) were uncomfortable with this allocation and  asked for guidance from the state. They received two opinions that it was not an appropriate use of CPA funds. Meanwhile, the Town Manager received an opinion from the Town Attorney KP Law, that the use could be “justified.” CPAC received a letter from the Town Manager Paul Bockelman saying that he has received its input and that there is “no need for the committee to meet again.” 

Nevertheless, CPAC is scheduled to meet again on June 30 at 6 p.m.

Announcements
Gray-Mullen announced that Jack Jemsek has been appointed to the Executive Committee of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

The meeting adjourned at 9:57 p.m. The next Planning Board meeting will be July 1 at 6:30. The next CPAC meeting will be June 30 at 6 p.m.

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