PLANNING BOARD WITHHOLDS BUILDING PERMITS IN AMHERST HILLS AS RESIDENTS CONTINUE DISPUTE WITH DEVELOPER OVER PRIVATE ROADS

Aerial view of the Amherst Hills subdivision off of Old Amherst Road. Photo: Google Maps.

Report of the Planning Board Meeting of  12/18/19.

Present: Board members Christine Gray-Mullen (Chair), Maria Chao, Jack Jemsek, Michael Birtwistle, Janet McGowan, David Levenstein. Staff: Christine Brestrup (Town Planner).

Highlights
The Planning Board:

  • Approved (by unanimous vote) Riverside Organics’ marijuana growing facility site plans.
  • In response to complaints from residents of the Amherst Hills subdivision, continued a hold on issuing building permits for development at Amherst Hills until roads there are completed. The board is also exploring increasing the developer’s bond requirement. 
  • Discussed a plan to coordinate revisions of the town’s Master Plan with the Town Council’s Community Resources Committee.

This four-hour meeting dealt mainly with two topics:

* The dispute between residents of Amherst Hills subdivision and the subdivision developer, Tofino Associates, over the condition of the subdivision’s unfinished roads.

• The plan to update the Master Plan for the Town, which was developed in 2010. 

Site Plan Review for Riverside Organics
The meeting began with the Planning Board approving the site plan review for Jonathan Gurfein and Riverside Organics,  a marijuana product manufacturing and micro-business located at 555 Belchertown Road. Thirty-five conditions were placed on the construction and operation dealing with hours of operations, lighting, signage, the septic system, and safety measures. Most of these were discussed at previous meetings.  Certain conditions cannot be finalized until the construction and licensing are completed. There was little discussion, and the site plan review was passed unanimously.

Amherst Hills Roads Dispute
Tom Reidy , an attorney representing residents of Amherst Hills, argued that while the Planning Board told the building inspector not to issue building permits  for the nine unsold lots of the development. that were released for sale in May the residents would ideally like to see the lot release rescinded, or, failing that, the security bond  increased from $288,000 to $750,000 to cover the cost of repairing and completing the roads. . Reidy acknowledged that the developer, Tofino Associates, began to make required repairs after the Planning Board’s actions at its November. 20 meeting. . The roads have now been  repaired sufficiently for the Town to plow them. However, since the last Planning Board meeting, the developer sued the 50 residents for binding arbitration to solve the dispute. See the Daily Hampshire Gazette article here.

Shortly before the meeting, Planning Board members received an email from Michael Pill, attorney for Tofino, stating that Tofino intended to complete the work  during the 2020 construction season. No representative for Tofino was present at the meeting.

The Board debated whether  Pill’s email was sufficient assurance that the work will get done, and if they should pursue an increase in the developer’s security bond. Town Attorney Joel Bard had said that freezing the issuance of the building permits was a good step to take. He had also said that it might be advisable to increase the security bond, but that it might not be enforceable without a lawsuit. Brestrup and Gray-Mullen favored giving the developer a chance to complete the work. Birtwistle, Jemsek, and McGowan were in favor of increasing the bond. Levenstein and Chao wanted to limit the Board’s involvement in the dispute. 

Six residents of Amherst Hills spoke at the meeting. Several expressed  concern that Tofino would go bankrupt and leave them responsible for completing work on the roads. They noted that the previous completion deadline of June 30 was not met and that no work was done until two days before the Planning Board made a site visit in late October. 

After discussing the matter for almost two hours, the Board decided to maintain the hold on issuing building permits, and to request a more formal assurance from Pill that the work would be done early in the 2020 construction season. Brestrup will check with Town Attorney Bard about the feasibility of requesting an increase in the security bond. 

Master Plan
Mandi-Jo Hanneke, chair of the Community Resources Committee (CRC) and David Ziomek, Assistant Town Manager, presented a document on proposed coordination between the Planning Board and CRC  to update the 2010 Master Plan. The update is required in Section 9.8 of the Town Charter, which specifies that the Council undertake a Master Plan review and revisions., though the state does not require these steps. (Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 41). The 2010 Master Plan was the result of a five-year project, with over 60 residents participating. It is available here. . Some revisions are necessary, such as acknowledging the change from Town Meeting/Select Board to Town Council form of government. It does not require a total rewrite. Several plans have been completed since 2010 but have not yet been incorporated into a revision, such as the Town’s Transportation Plan (2015), its Open Space and Recreation Plan (2017), its Housing Market Study (2015), Bicycle and Pedestrian Network Plan(2019), and Hazard Mitigation Plan (2016). In addition, the Council approved bold sustainability goals for the reduction of Town fossil fuel use by 25 percent by 2025, 50 percent by 2030, and net zero by 2050.  Hanneke noted that these required revisions and additions would not require a complete rewrite of the Master Plan.

Planning Board members were nervous about undertaking such a large project, on top of their usual work and the looming task of updating the zoning bylaws. However, Hanneke and Gray-Mullen explained that this will be an update, not a wholesale revision of the plan and that the Planning Department staff would do the preliminary work and bring it to the Board. Brestrup recommended keeping open communication between the CRC and Planning Board regarding suggested changes. The Planning Board will then produce a “Final Draft Master Plan” for comments from the public, staff, and the CRC. The final draft will be reviewed by the CRC and then referred to the Council as a whole, with or without amendments from the CRC. Amherst’s previous Master Plan was  first written in 1969 and then revised in 2010.

Procedures
McGowan requested that meeting materials be provided to Planning Board members one week before its meeting date to permit adequate study beforehand. The Planning Department is putting more documents in digital form to permit earlier receipt by members. Discussion of how to get materials to the Board in time for review will continue at the next Planning Board meeting in January.. 

The meeting adjourned at 11:05 p.m.

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